Pendleton softball

Pendleton’s Aspen Garton fields a ball during a game against La Grande on March 19, 2019, at Steve Cary Field.

Last year was Pendleton softball’s concluding chapter in the Columbia River Conference, and they shut that book with a bang.

The Buckaroos dropped just two games overall, and won 28. They ended the season with a 7-0 shutout against Putnam to claim the state championship.

This year, they said goodbye to the CRC in favor of the Intermountain Conference, a league that head coach Tim Cary said has some of the toughest teams in the 5A division. Four of the top 10 teams in the division, Pendleton included, hail from the IMC.

Ridgeview is ranked No. 1, Hood River Valley is No. 2, Pendleton is No. 5, and The Dalles sits at No. 9.

But that isn’t a bad thing.

“It’s an advantage,” Cary said. “There are no days off. There’s a lot of pressure and stress, and no gimmies. That challenge will help us going into the postseason.”

This afternoon, the battle-hardened Bucks (16-9, 9-6 IMC) are embarking on their first state playoff run coming out of the new conference. They’ll host the Midwestern League’s third-ranked Thurston Colts for the first round.

It’s an opportunity that Pendleton fought to secure. It all came down to their home doubleheader against The Dalles on Saturday, May 11.

Had the Bucks lost both games, or even split, they would have dropped to No. 4 in the IMC standings and missed out on their shot at the playoffs.

Instead, the Bucks won the opener 8-3, and the closer in a 17-1 blowout.

“It was good for us as a team to see that we could pull through in those high pressure situations,” Cary said. “I think that should add to the girls’ confidence.”

The sweep earned Pendleton the No. 3 spot in the IMC standings, and a trip to the state playoffs. It wasn’t always smooth sailing to get there, especially considering that the Bucks rarely met their match at all last season.

“We’ve traveled to the Bend-Redmond area three times this year,” said senior shortstop Aspen Garton, who has been on the softball team all four years. “Those rides are hard to recover from. Bus legs against the No. 1 team in the state (Ridgeview) is a tough situation.”

Cary said that the IMC was a league where any team could win at any given time, and that little is known about Thurston, who the Bucks haven’t faced since the mid-2000s.

“We’re not very familiar with them,” Cary said. “They’re obviously capable of winning games. They’re a team we’re taking very seriously.”

Cary said that his team has spent recent practices polishing up their regular game plan. The team has found their footing on both sides of the ball, whether it’s at bat or in the circle. Freshman right-hander Sauren Garton has tallied 57 strikeouts on the season so far, and will open today’s playoff game.

“In the last eight games or so, we’ve done a much better job of eliminating runs (allowed),” Cary said. “That was a problem for us earlier in the year.”

They also have two batters hitting .500 for the overall season: sophomore Natalie Neveau and senior Kila Solomon.

“Early on in the year, we didn’t know what we could do as a team,” said Solomon, a catcher. “We’ve always pushed each other, and we never let the score affect us. I’ve noticed throughout the year that we’ve all connected better.”

Should the Bucks win the playoff’s first round, they’re in for another road trip. A game against the winner of today’s Churchill-West Albany game awaits them in Albany — 278 miles from their home Steve Cary Field.

“We’re a much better team than we think we are,” Garton said. “We have to come together for a team win. As long as we play together, we’ll be just fine.”

The Bucks will take on the Colts at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday.

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