Softball: North Marion ready to compete now
With nine freshmen making up the bulk of the varsity roster — five of whom are starting — the North Marion softball team is in the midst of the very definition of a rebuilding year. But that doesn't mean the Huskies can't also have playoff aspirations.
First-year head coach Jon Santos entered the season with a modest goal of winning eight games and building experience within a group of mostly young players led by a handful of veterans. But after the Huskies won back-to-back games against the Stayton Eagles last week, putting the team in post season contention with two weeks left in the season, Santos is ready to move the bar up.
"Right now I'm adjusting goals," Santos said. "I'd love to make playoffs because they deserve it."
The Huskies (7-12, 2-7 Oregon West Conference) were mired in a seven-game losing streak dating back to the last day of March. The team had dropped its final non-conference game of the season on March 31 and had gone 0-6 against league opponents since.
In that span were double digit losses to league leaders No. 8 Philomath (13-5, 8-1) and Newport (11-6, 6-2), and a pair of one-run defeats to Yamhill-Carlton (8-8, 5-3). The streak prompted the coaching staff to go with a positional shakeup, moving its two senior-most players — junior outfielder Samantha Baylie and senior utility player Ally Umbenhower — closer to the action.
Umbenhower had played nearly every position in the infield in her career at North Marion, from third base, short stop, second base, even pitcher — all except catcher. But when the Husky coaching staff asked if she'd be comfortable fielding pitches from freshman starter Jasmine Calkins, Umbenhower was eager to help in whatever way she could.
"We needed someone who understood the game, up to the most competitive aspect as possible," Santos said. "The kid is very coachable and I love what she brings to the table. She's a natural leader back there."
The move put one of the team's most knowledgeable players in a position to impact the game on nearly every play, from aggressively holding baserunners to reducing the number of passed balls that allow opponents free rein around the infield. Despite the fact that Umbenhower had last suited up in catcher's gear playing at the 12u level, but was quick to pick up the position.
"She's gotten some one-on-one time with me as far as catching to make sure we've got the bare basics," Santos said. "The kid is dang athletic. The determination she has and the knowledge, it was key for us being behind the plate."
Farther away from the plate, Baylie has made a name for herself as one of the best centerfielders in the Oregon West Conference in her first two years in the league, but with Umbenhower out of the infield, it was vital for Santos and his staff to replace that experience by pulling Baylie into the infield to take over second base. The move allowed North Marion's best player to be much closer to the action, fielding grounders and line drives on a regular basis instead of making a handful of popouts 150 feet away from the game.
"The decision was just as easy," Santos said. "We need to strengthen that middle infield. We have to be able to have coverage, and she's given that to us multiple times. She has a lot more softball I.Q., understanding what's supposed to happen."
The two players have been vital to the team's success this season, but the Huskies are ultimately reliant on how quickly the team's freshman starters can mature and contribute over the two-month playing period.
That much was evident last week in the team's 4-1 victory over Stayton, where the team overcame a lackluster day at the plate to hold the Eagles to one run through seven innings, the best defensive performance for North Marion since the beginning of the season.
"Jasmine Calkins did her thing on the mound and kept it a 4-1 game," Santos said. "She kept it on the ground and allowed our defense to play."
North Marion led 1-0 for the first half of the game before the Eagles tied it up in the fifth inning. But the Huskies were able to piece together three runs in the second half of the game to give themselves a comfortable cushion.
"The girls overall, we weren't all the way timed batting wise, but once we were able to figure it out, we were able to make some sacrifice runs and put the bat on the ball," Santos said.
The follow-up game at home was all offense, as the Huskies rallied from giving up a three-run home run in the first inning to win 12-1. Much of the offense came from freshman shortstop Liliana Piercey, who had a career day, going 4-for-4 with three triples and eight RBIs.
"Lilly Piercy just had a day," Santos said. "Our freshman shortstop is killing it these last two days. She's one of our development leaders."
The two wins were momentous for a number of reasons. In addition to snapping the losing streak, the victories gave North Marion a series win against a league opponent for the first time since the 2016 season. The Huskies also moved out of the basement in the Oregon West and into a three-way tie for fourth place in the conference, where they ranked No. 24 in the OSAA rankings before dropping to No. 26 after a 16-5 loss to Cascade (5-11, 2-7) on Friday to wrap up the week.
Santos was hoping to follow with a win over the Cougars this week to tie the series, and with a home game against Yamhill-Carlton on Thursday, the Huskies are looking to make up for the two close losses from earlier in the season.
With the back half of the team's schedule looking much more palatable, North Marion is putting itself in position to challenge for one of the two at-large playoff berths awarded to teams that finish outside of the top three in their league standings. It's a scenario that didn't seem possible at the beginning of the season, but one that is welcome for certain.
"They're hungry about it, which is nice," Santos said. The coaching staff prides itself on making these girls as prepared as possible. They're a good group. They work hard for each other and they're a good team."