The Stolen Season
Staring into the shadows at the University of Oregon's Jane Sanders Stadium, Grace Schaecher and the Kennedy softball team were in an unusual position.
With runners on first and third in the top of the fourth inning, the Trojans were staring up at a 9-0 deficit to North Douglas in the 2019 2A/1A State Softball Championship.
Schaecher wound up and hurled a pitch toward home plate, plunking the ball off the Warriors' Sofia Alcantar to load the bases. As it turns out, that would be the last pitch Scaecher would ever throw in a Kennedy Trojans uniform.
Schaecher finished the game in centerfield as teammate Ellie Cantu took over on the mound. The Trojans would rally in the second half of the game, matching the Warriors run-for-run before eventually falling by a 15-6 margin.
It was a bittersweet end to an otherwise unforgettable and improbable season. After losing the core players from the 2018 state championship team, the Trojans rallied behind Schaecher and the new class of players to make an unexpected return trip to the 2A/1A softball finals.
"I was just happy that we made it that far," Schaecher said. "My goal was to make it to the quarterfinals, and we made it all the way to the championship, got second, and played against an amazing team. I was just happy with that."
With no seniors on the roster, the Trojans were due to return every member from the 2019 championship run. After blowing past their expectations the year before, the Kennedy softball players were eager to head into this season and prove once again that they were the best small-school softball team in the state.
"Everybody got along so well," Schaecher said. "We had good chemistry built up throughout the year. We all played together for so long. It just was like, you could kind of tell — this is going to be a really good year."
But the expectations and anticipation of the coming season all came crashing down in a matter of weeks. The spring high school athletic season was one of the many victims of the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought Oregon and much of the nation to a standstill.
"It's definitely been hard. I'm really missing softball right now," Schaecher said. "It being my senior season and going from not having any spectators at games to postponing the season, then finally getting the message saying we're done."
Learning to love the game
That Schaecher and the other seniors on the team won't get to finish their final spring season is a bitter pill to swallow. The Kennedy pitcher started playing the sport in elementary school, taking up t-ball, but never really enjoying it at first.
"Honestly, I did not like softball at all," Schaecher said.
But she continued playing over the years until the competitive bug finally bit her going into middle school. Schaecher began to take private lessons with a pitching coach and started playing with tournament softball teams around Mount Angel in sixth grade.
"That's when I started to learn I was a good pitcher, and I could work hard and make myself better," she said. " I really learned to love the sport in middle school and work hard and start to learn that I liked being really competitive with the sport."
As her skill on the mound grew, so did her desire to play against top-level competition. Schaecher joined the South Valley Storm — a fastpitch travel team out of Junction City — more than an hour away from Mount Angel.
"For the past three years, those were my drives," Schaecher said. "I would drive down to tournament ball practice, and I would drive back."
The Storm allowed Schaecher to travel the country, competing in Colorado, Virginia and California. Schaecher honed her abilities from the pitcher's circle through hours of practice and countless games. She met new teammates, coaches, parents, friends.
"I've been able to meet so many amazing coaches, who have not only been able to help me as a player but as a person — so many things about myself, just how to be a good person in general," Schaecher said. "That's where I learned I really loved softball, and I want to continue playing it after high school."
Riding the pine
Schaecher was a talented freshman when she joined the Kennedy softball team in 2017 but came into a program that already featured an established starting pitcher — Tressa Riedman.
Then a junior, Riedman had built a reputation as one of the top pitchers in the state. She went on to be named 2A/1A Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year in her 2018 senior season. With Riedman firmly entrenched on the mound, Schaecher had no choice but to bide her time and take advantage of the occasional pitching opportunities that trickled her way.
"That was a bummer for me my freshman year, not being able to play as much," Schaecher said. "But I understood. If I was ever an upperclassman and a younger classman came in and took over, I'd be kind of bummed. I totally understood."
As it turned out, Schaecher and Riedman were neighbors in Mount Angel. Living in close proximity and playing the same position, the two teammates became incredibly close over the first two years of Schaecher's high school career.
"We built a really good relationship outside of softball and started hanging out a lot more," Schaecher said. "I think that's the closest we've ever become. We were best friends. We'd push each other in practice. We were definitely very passionate about softball, wanting to win and be the best we could be."
Heading into the 2018 season, Kennedy boasted a core of senior talent that was eager to make up for a semifinal upset to North Douglas the year before. With Riedman at the helm, the Trojans ripped through the regular season to build a 24-4 record, win the league title and earn the No. 2 seed in the state playoffs.
While Schaecher was still a backup, she did get more playing time as a sophomore.
"Tressa hurt herself halfway through the year, and we didn't know what was going to happen," Schaecher said. "That was a little bit stressful because we did have such a good team. I was like, 'OK, you can't let everybody down.'"
The Trojans were an absolute powerhouse. The team won their final 15 games of the season and gave up just two runs total across their last nine games. Kennedy swept through the playoffs with ease, outscoring opponents 46-1 — including a 10-0 romp over Pilot Rock in the state championship game at Oregon State University.
"You could throw any girl in there, and they would perform just as well as a starter," Schaecher said. "It was just that kind of team. Everybody was just so strong and athletic all around. We could hit the ball well, we could pitch, we could throw. It was just an awesome dynamic to have."
Heading into the title game, Kennedy was coming off a 10-1 victory over league rival Central Linn earlier in the week. The Cobras were the only 2A/1A team to beat the Trojans in the regular season and were the only team to score against Kennedy over the final month of play.
But that didn't mean Schaecher and the team were bubbling with confidence heading into the state championship game against the Pilots.
The Trojans had never won a state softball title — their only other finals appearance coming in a 3-2 loss to Waldport in 2006.
Pilot Rock, on the other hand, was making its fourth consecutive state championship appearance, having won in 2015 and 2016 while narrowly losing to North Douglas the year before.
"We were definitely nervous," she said. "We were shaking in our boots."
But after a scoreless first inning between the two teams, all the anxiety melted away behind a barrage of Kennedy offense and a lights-out performance by Riedman on the mound. In the span of 63 minutes, the Trojans found themselves staring at a 10-0 victory in five innings, delivering the first high school softball title to Mount Angel in program history.
"We got into this rhythm and were like, 'Holy cow, this is going so well!'" Schaecher said. "That just kept building throughout the game. Eventually, we looked up at the scoreboard, and we had 10-runned them."
Following on the footsteps of the 2018 championship, Schaecher could finally step onto the mound and prove what she could do.
With four First Team All-State seniors gone from last year's title team, Schaecher just wanted to get back to the playoffs, maybe make it as far as the quarterfinals. In fact, she just wanted there to be a team.
"When we first started the season, we actually didn't know if we'd have enough players to put a team together," Schaecher said.
With the help of four incoming freshmen to fill out the roster, the Trojans put together a 12-person team and start the season. They lost their first three games of the season against 3A powers Scio and Dayton before picking up their first win against perennial 2A/1A contender Toledo. As the season wore on, the Trojans began racking up the victories. The victory over Toledo started a run of 22 wins in 23 contests, blowing past Schaecher's expectations as the Trojans made a surprise second run to the state championship game.
"I just wanted to work my hardest with this team, make us the best we could be," Schaecher said. "And then we ended up in the finals - literally the day of the championship, I couldn't wrap my mind around it."
2019 State Championship loss
"Going into that game, I could tell everybody was very nervous," Schaecher said. "We've never been matched as well as that team matched us, talent-wise."
With junior pitcher Nicki Derrick on the mound for North Douglas, the Trojans had no answer for the two-time 2A/1A State Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Schaecher was trying to keep herself grounded under the substantial pressure of pitching for the first time in a state championship game.
"I was trying to overpitch way too hard," she said. "This was the biggest stage I had ever pitched on before. That was very nerve-wracking for me going into it."
It was a rough outing for Schaecher, who gave up nine runs — six earned — in just over three innings of play, while striking out three times at the plate against Derrick. But she didn't want to let the moment pass her by.
"Not many people can say they've played in a state championship — enjoy these moments," she said. "We brought this team here. It wasn't the older girls, it was us. We did this all on our own. It was a really awesome feeling to have. I was just happy that we made it that far."
Coming into this season, Schaecher and the Trojans were looking forward to making up for the championship loss and accomplishing two rare feats of success.
Schaecher was just returning from Pendleton in March as a member of the 2020 state champion girls basketball team. With the Trojans winning a state title in volleyball in November, the softball team had a rare opportunity to give Mount Angel a three-season sweep in high school girls athletics."It's not a fun thing, especially since we won it in volleyball, then we went to basketball and we won it. How awesome it would have been to win it (in softball)?"
And with every member of last year's softball team slated to return this spring, the Trojans had another rare opportunity to make a third state championship run in the same sport — something no other program in school history had ever accomplished.
"It's just — it's hard," she said. "Obviously, it also stinks because we can't meet to all talk about this. We've got to stay separate."
Schaecher's softball career is far from over, signing to play with the Chemeketa Storm in December to continue competing at the collegiate level. Schaecher wanted to play somewhere close to home, and the opportunity to have her first two years of college paid for was too good to pass up.
"It'll be a really great stepping stone because I didn't want to go to such a big college from high school," Schaecher said. "Because my high school was so small, I didn't want to take a huge jump to like a D3 or D2 school. I wanted to take it slow."
From there, Schaecher wants to pursue a career in psychology, working in child counseling at the elementary school level.
"I know so many kids who have gone through trauma or abuse and they grow up with that burden on their shoulders because they never got the help when they were young and really needed it," she said. "That's really something I'm really passionate about, and I want to help people with that when they're young, so they don't have to grow up and deal with something so horrible and that just drags them down with other things in life."
And when everyday life is back to normal and folks are free to return to their daily activities?
"Going out and getting some good food. Go on an adventure somewhere."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.