Woodburn softball excited for new season
At this time last year, the Woodburn softball team was still sitting in the dugout, waiting for the weather to break in order to get its first game in. The 2017 spring athletic season was notoriously wet, even by Oregon standards, and the Bulldogs had to wait until the tail end of March to finally log a complete game.
One year later, the Bulldogs already have three games under their belt and are likely to get three more in by the end of the month.
"Everyone was pretty excited," head coach Levi Arias said. "The girls were ready and anxious to get out on the field and play."
Woodburn opened the season on March 12 with a 16-4 loss at Molalla and added two more games later in the month, an 11-4 loss to McKay on March 16 and a 33-3 loss to South Albany on March 20.
The McKay loss was a significant milestone for the Bulldogs this season — playing a complete game against an opponent this season. The Woodburn softball program moves incrementally. Many players have little to no experience playing the game when they get to high school. Those that do get fast tracked to the varsity team. The rest have a season or two at the freshman and JV levels to learn the basics before they're moved up to the varsity team, where they play against girls who sometimes have a decade of experience.
As a result, wins are a rare thing in the Woodburn softball program, and the team has to find other ways to measure its improvement — making the right play in a pressure situation, play a game to a complete seven innings.
That was one goal the Bulldogs had going into this season — their third and final year at the independent level before Woodburn High School moves to 4A next school year — and it took them just two games to accomplish it.
"We were able to take McKay all the way to seven innings," Arias said. "That's something we accomplished already."
McKay is in a similar situation as Woodburn, having last won a game in 2014 before their win over the Bulldogs. Programs like McKay and Woodburn — those without a strong softball pedigree — are frequent enough in the state, but not in the Mid-Willamette Conference where the Bulldogs play.
Playing an independent schedule allows Woodburn the opportunity to compete against other programs at a similar skill level, giving the Bulldogs a chance to develop experience in high-pressure situations.
Such was the case against McKay, where the Scots built a 10-0 lead after six innings, forcing the Bulldogs to come up with timely hitting in the bottom of the sixth to avoid an automatic 10-run defeat.
Woodburn got its run to keep the game going, but the Scots added another in the top of the frame to make it an 11-1 lead going into the bottom of the seventh, a rare place for the Bulldogs to be. Woodburn played in just three complete games last year and didn't see a seventh inning until midway through April.
They needed 10 runs to keep the game going, 11 to win. Putting their rally caps on, Woodburn found its offense and put three runs up on the board to make the Scots sweat before McKay was able to record the third out to end the game. After the game, Arias was proud of how his team competed down the stretch.
"It was a fun game," he said. "We started making it pretty interesting that last inning. Our girls are getting better with the hitting."
Arias enters the program having served as the team's assistant coach last year under former head coach C.J. High. He has coached at the middle school level for basketball and soccer and helped the softball program prior to taking on the lead assistant role in 2017.
Arias credits former and current Woodburn coaches like Brian Flannigan, Mike Flannigan, Neil Wilhelm and Nick Federico for helping him and hopes to channel their spirit and energy on the softball diamond.
"That's how I did my learning," Arias said. "All these coaches have been coaching at Woodburn for many years. That's how I learned this and that's how I grew."
Arias knows that the Bulldogs have a lot of ground to make up, and with no middle school program to speak of, he helped bring in Joe Elsasser, president of Woodburn Youth Baseball, to lead the junior varsity team.
"When I got this chance to become the head coach, one of my main focuses would be to connect our program with the younger programs at the younger level," Arias said.
In time, Arias hopes to see incoming freshmen entering the program with several years of competitive play in the background. This year's team already has five freshmen on the roster, and boasts 10 returning veterans who played for the team last year.
Many of the upperclassmen were introduced to the game under Arias at the JV level several years ago, and have made incredible strides in that time.
"A lot of my girls were just barely learning how to play softball when they came into high school," Arias said. "Now they're playing at the varsity level and they're becoming very good competitors. It's exciting to see them still with it and make these plays that they couldn't make when they were freshmen."
Arias expects his vets — Hailey Olivas, Rachel Bacon and Alexis Jacobucci — to pick up the leadership role this season and show the incoming freshmen how much work it takes to go out there and play each season. Because when they're gone and Woodburn goes back to playing a league schedule again, it'll be up to the next class of players to usher the program into the 4A Classification.
"That is my goal to get them well-prepared and able to compete at that 4A," Arias said. "I'm looking for good, positive results."