Defense, power surge from Kortney Smith, freshman pitchers help set the pace

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MILES VANCE - St. Helens' Brea Paulson delivers during her team's 16-7 non-league loss to West Linn at Rosemont Ridge Middle School on Monday.Some tough Class 6A sparring partners have prepared the 5A St. Helens softball team for its main event — the upcoming Northwest Oregon Conference season.

Over spring break, the Lions took on four 6A teams, but even in going 1-3, they showed prowess in hitting and defense and promise from two freshman pitchers.

Now it's time to focus on their NWOC opener against Wilsonville at 5 p.m. Wednesday at St. Helens High School.

"The girls are really pumped up," St. Helens coach Miranda Little said, "and they're excited that our first league game is at home."

St. Helens had two preseason games rained out, but that left the Lions with six games played in March and a 1-5 record.

St. Helens' opposition included three teams ranked in the top six of 6A by the Oregon School Activities Association — No. 1 Tualatin, No. 4 Clackamas and No. 6 Tigard.

St. Helens lost 16-3 to Clackamas in its season opener. During spring break, the Lions fell to 18th-ranked West Linn 16-7, Tigard 8-2 and Tualatin 11-3.

West Linn all but sealed its win over the Lions with one big inning, scoring 11 runs in the sixth as it erased what at one point was a 7-2 St. Helens lead.

The next day, Tigard jumped on the Lions with eight runs in the first inning, but St. Helens held the Tigers scoreless the rest of the way.

The fourth game of spring break came against Tualatin, which pieced together its runs while giving up three runs to the Lions in the fifth inning.

"The girls have been doing really well — it's just been one inning here or there," Little said. "That was a rough (sixth) inning at West Linn, but the girls fought through it.

"Against Tigard, we had some great plays on defense and some great at-bats — the girls showed the game wasn't over. It was really fun to watch them.

"Tualatin was hitting the gaps, and one of their players had two home runs in two at-bats against us, but we played really good defense in that game as well, we just didn't hit as well against them."

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MILES VANCE - St. Helens' Hallie Schwirse tries to make a running catch during her team's 16-7 non-league loss to West Linn at Rosemont Ridge Middle School on Monday.

The Lions won their other spring break game, routing South Eugene 17-4. That game was halted in the fourth inning due to a time limit.

"We hit the ball really well. The girls were having a great time," Little said. "It's always fun when you're winning, but this team is able to have fun even when we're not. They play hard and have a good time with one another."

West Linn is 6-1, Tigard 7-1, Tualatin 7-0 and Clackamas 7-2 so the competition for St. Helens has been about as good as it can get.

"We always like to play up (in classification) in preseason because our league is really tough and it's hard to find that really tough competition at the 5A level outside of our league," Little said. "We do it just to get ready for league. Seeing the tougher (6A) pitchers is always really important."

The Lions' other preseason game was a 10-4 loss to 5A Ridgeview, which is 5-1.

Senior Kortney Smith provided some of the major highlights in the Monday and Tuesday doubleheaders at West Linn and Sunset, hitting the first home run of her high school career … as well as the second, third and fourth.

Her first blast came against West Linn, she hit two more against South Eugene and capped the two-day frenzy with an HR against Tualatin.

Smith had six RBIs versus South Eugene.

"She was having a day. It was really fun to watch," Little said.

Where did this power come from a player who last year hit in different spots in the batting order and was known more for her left-handed slaps and speed getting to first base?

At the start of this season, Little talked with assistant coach Mark McQueen about making a change. They came up with a plan and relayed it to Smith.

"We told her we wanted her to be more of a power hitter in the four spot," Little said.

She hit right-handed on the home run shots and is showing the long-ball potential the coaches had hoped for.

"It's perfect because we have a bunch of speed on the bases ahead of her," Little said.

The Lions' lineup in the field consists generally of Smith in left field, senior Trinity Degraffenreid in center and either freshman Jasmine Pense or sophomore Dessa Cooper in right; junior Madi Flores starts behind the plate, sophomore Brynn Austin is at first base, senior Hallie Schwirse plays at second, junior Taylor Dow is at shortstop and senior Brooklynn Mercier at third.

The pitchers are newcomers Alise Gump and Brea Paulson, who have softball experience on summer travel teams.

Gump is about 5-foot-11 "and has a little whip on her ball," while Paulson 5-7 and "able to place the ball exactly where the catcher calls for it," Little said.

Little is excited to have two solid starters for the first time in about five years — and both with four years ahead of them.

"They have a lot of support from their teammates," Little said. "I've had teams in the past that might be irritated that someone was coming in and playing the position they wanted to play at, but these girls are 100 percent behind them."

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