Softball: Gervais Cougars on the rise
When junior pitcher Veronica Esquivel recorded the final out for the Gervais softball team's 16-0 win over the Chemawa Braves last week, the Cougars trotted off the field happy to come away with the team's fifth win of the season.
The players were completely oblivious to the significance of the victory, but it certainly wasn't lost on head coach Kevin Davidson and assistant coach Maddy Bowman.
The two were following Esquivel's game on the team's score keeping tablet, and the final stat line was what every coach dreams of — zero runs, zero hits, zero walks, zero errors — a perfect game.
"That is amazing," Davidson said. "That is huge that she did that, and she had no idea that she did that."
Not only did Esquivel not realize what she had done, the team didn't understand what a perfect game even was. It's the gold standard of statistical achievement. A feat so rare that it's only happened 23 times in the 140-plus years of Major League Baseball.
For the Cougars, it was just another win, and the epitome of where the program is at as Davidson takes over the team this year.
The Cougars — and Gervais High School girls athletics in general — are seeing a well spring of raw athletic talent bubbling up this year.
For Davidson, a 1981 graduate of Gervais High School who previously coached the softball team from 2010 to 2012, his goal is to take that talent and shape it into a well-oiled machine that is capable of taking the Cougars to levels of success the program has not seen in recent years.
"There's something coming up through Gervais," Davidson said. "I see a future coming through that program."
But raw talent can only get you so far. Many of the Cougars enter the season with only a surface level of softball knowledge. They're capable of making athletic plays, but the nuts and bolts of the game's complex situational strategy is a new concept to many of the players.
"I'm still trying to teach them about the game," Davidson said. "They just went out the last few years and went around without knowing the strategy."
That's where Davidson's bread is buttered. He lives for the tactics between innings, outs and pitches, and sees the Cougars as a wealth of talent just waiting to be opened and unleashed upon the rest of the PacWest Conference.
And to the Cougars' credit, the team is eager to soak it all in. When Davidson was teaching them a play between first and third base, it was as if a light turned on. Not just about the play itself, but that softball was a game that even had plays that could be executed. It was as if a whole new world opened up for the Cougars to play in.
"It's kind of cool, because they're excited to learn it," Davidson said. "They're like, 'Oh my god, this is so awesome.' They're super excited to run some of the plays."
Fortunately, there is plenty of time for the Cougars to pick up the intricacy of the game.
Gervais graduated just two players from last year's team, and although not every eligible player returned to the softball field this season, the Cougars bring back a lot of talent from 2017, and not one senior.
That means a lot of time for the team to build chemistry together, to build chemistry with the coach and to build their talent to match their enthusiasm.
With one week left in the non-conference schedule, the Cougars have put together a strong pre-season resume with a 5-2 record.
That matches the team's entire win total from 2017, which stood tied for the highest win total for the program since Gervais went 8-13 under Davidson in 2011.
But five wins does not make a season, and four of the victories have come against the Braves and Sheridan — two programs that have struggled to find wins in recent years.
"Everybody says we're doing great," Davidson said. "I'm looking at it that we still have a lot of work to do."
Gervais will be going up against much tougher opponents on a regular basis when the team begins its conference schedule next week.
Davidson is looking more at a pair of other games — a 19-14 win over Gaston on March 20 and a 12-2 loss at North Eugene on March 27 — as the barometer for the team's abilities.
The victory against Gaston was a legitimate win against an opponent that went 10-2 in their league last year and qualified for the state playoffs.
And the loss to North Eugene came against a 5A program in which the Cougars were trailing 3-2 before the Highlanders pulled away to force a 10-run win.
Davidson believes with the right level of confidence, that's a game that Gervais can win.
"They didn't quite understand that they could win a game like that," Davidson said. "We could compete with them. We can compete with anybody."
It's been five years since the Cougars last qualified for a post season game. Gervais advanced to the league playoffs in all three years under Davidson, and last qualified for the state playoffs in 2008.
The program struggled after Davidson left in 2013, going winless in three straight seasons.
Gervais has rebounded some in recent years, posting five wins in each of the past two seasons, but Davidson admits it is difficult to convince the girls they are more talented than the program's recent history suggests. He points to Esquivel as the perfect example of that.
"Veronica is better than what she thinks she is," Davidson said. "I keep telling her that she is so good. She can dominate this league in pitching if she wants to."
Last year's Cougars entered the season with playoffs on the mind, and the team came dangerously close, missing out on a league playoff berth by virtue of a tie-breaker against the Colton Vikings.
But Davidson doesn't want to focus on a playoff berth that is more than a month away any more than he wants to focus on a game next week. He's a self-professed "one pitch at a time" coach who wants his team to simply go into each inning looking to win those three outs.
"I don't care who the opponent is," Davidson said. "I go into every inning 0-0, and that's the mind set I want them in."
He doesn't want the Cougars looking at the classification of which opponent they're going up against. He doesn't want them looking at their record or the ranking of their next opponent on the OSAA standings. He just wants them to ride that enthusiasm to learn as much as possible about the game, combine it with their natural athletic talent and see how far that can take them.
"I'm just going to teach them the game, and it's up to them to execute," Davidson said. "I want to battle with the best, and I know they can. That's what I'm trying to get through to them – they can do this.