In the weeks before the statewide school closure through April 28, the North Marion softball team was taking advantage of the unusually dry and sunny spring in the Willamette Valley.
Between clear skies, bright sun, and moderately cool weather, it was the perfect opportunity to attract new players to a program that is looking to restructure itself under a new coaching staff led by first-year head coach Russell Bowling.
"I love them," junior pitcher Jasmine Calkins said. "We work every day, Monday through Friday, even on the weekends for 2-3 hours every day. Since the beginning of January and into December before everybody else."
Bowling is a household name in the North Marion softball community, with daughters Breezy, Brittany and Brandi playing through the system in the early 2010s.
This year marks Bowling's first foray into high school ball as a head coach, having previously served as an assistant under former coach Rachel Camp several years ago. Over the years, he has built ample experience leading his daughters' club teams playing statewide in hyper-competitive leagues — a stark contrast to the high school level.
"The thing is on a club team you have players that are just itching to get better and play; that's what they want to do," Bowling said. "In high school ball, you get some of that, but you also get some who just want to come and try out. You've got to incorporate that and you've got to be successful. I think we've got that worked out pretty good."
Outfielder Hailey Davis is among nine freshmen coming out for this year's program, boasting just one year of previous experience when she was five. A soccer player and a cheerleader, Davis was convinced by Calkins and the team's lone senior — Karissa Johnson — to give the sport another try.
"I tried it, and it was really fun," Davis said. "It's very scary. Some of the girls on here have played for years, and when they throw the ball, it's super fast."
But that split skill level between the ultra-experienced club players like Calkins and newcomers to the sport like Davis provides a dichotomy in the Husky dugout that fosters a mentorship among the two groups of players.
"I try to use my experience to help people and not to criticize other players — to let them know that I'm here if they need me," Calkins said.
That falls in line under Bowling's mantra of, "If it's not positive, it's poison."
"That includes parents, fans, whoever else," Bowling said. "If it's not positive, it's poison."
A former Marine, Bowling has no problem taking a more forceful approach if folks can't adhere to his favorite phrase, pointing to a bleacher down the left-field fence where jeering fans will be relegated to if they can't behave themselves.
"We made a parent time out section," he said. "If they can't behave up here, we'll send them down there."
Bowling keeps practices positive and engaging, working with players who come to the team under vastly different experience levels. The Huskies sport a solid junior class that includes Calkins, catcher Abby Railey infielder Lili Piercey and outfielder Rayne Ellis, along with strong sophomores like infielders Anna Fuentes and Emily Vachter.
But many more are coming out for the sport for the first time. Bowling wants to keep those incoming players engaged and excited to build their skills to become productive members of the team in future seasons.
"We're trying to develop young ladies into adults," Bowling said. "We're trying to make them work their problems out together.
"We want them to understand that this is a game and games are for fun, but also winning is a lot more fun than losing, so let's try to incorporate all that with what we're doing."
It's a program-level mentality that Bowling agreed to with assistant coach Robert Shaffer, another seasoned club-level coach who applied for the head coaching position with Bowling. Before Bowling getting picked for the position, the two agreed beforehand that whoever gets the job, the other would-be assistant and the pair would work as a team.
"We agreed it's a 'we' not a 'me' or 'I,'" Bowling said.
Joining them on the coaching staff are two familiar faces. Bowling's youngest daughter, Brandi, joins the team as a former First Team All-State catcher who graduated in 2015 and went on to play at Southwestern Oregon Community College and Eastern Oregon University.
Her former North Marion teammate — Michaela Meeuwsen — was a four-year starter at shortstop for the Huskies, graduating in 2014 as a former All-State infielder and 2013 Co-Player of the Year in the Tri-Valley Conference.
The two will provide Coach Bowling a pair of younger, experienced graduates to help teach the incoming players while providing high-level coaching for the returning players.
Together, the North Marion coaching staff is looking to build a partnership that will benefit the softball program in the years to come.
"It's kind of exciting and to see the youth out here excited about playing ball again," Bowling said.
Whether that season continues this year is yet to be seen. Should the season become canceled, it will be a tough blow for Johnson as the only senior on the team. But rest assured that while the athletic facilities are shut down, the student-athletes are at home, practicing eager to get out on the field in green and white when the time comes.
"I'm not looking forward to direct growth this year," Calkins said. "I'm mostly looking forward to the growth that's going to help us next year."
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