State softball championships: Knights enter new territory

Irrigon's Jessica Henrichs keeps her eye on the plate during a game against Pilot Rock earlier this season.<BR><I>Staff Photo by Brenna E. Chapman</I>

In the infancy of Irrigon softball, a group of would-be freshmen attended a softball camp in Corvallis with their future coach Jake McElligott. It was during that camp McElligott put a thought in those players' heads: "What would it be like to someday play there when it mattered most - for the state title?"

At the time, the challenge seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. The year before - the Knights' first since reopening the school in 2003 - Irrigon won just one game.

Three years later, that dream became a reality, when the Knights beat Gaston 3-1 in the semifinals and advanced to the state Class 2A/1A title game against defending champion Union Friday at 1 p.m. in Corvallis.

"When he said, 'How would you feel about playing here for real?' we were all just thinking, 'What are you talking about?'" said junior second baseman Jessica Henrichs, who went three for four in the game against Gaston. "We didn't even know. We were thinking we could go to the playoffs and however far we go, we go. This year was just not like that. There was just so much more feeling this year than last year."

McElligott could not have known then his Knights would someday play for a state title, but with a group he called the "fab five" - the group of five juniors who have started since stepping foot on the Irrigon high school softball field - he knew the talent was on the roster.

"We're coming closer and closer to realizing the dream," McElligott said. "I told the girls dreams are not tangible; you can't see them or touch them. But we can hear the crowd, feel their support and see how much fun we're having and it's a dream come true.

"I knew we'd have a talented team when they were freshmen and all the way through high school. I thought it would be nice - knowing we had the potential - but not knowing so many of the other wild cards. Are they going to be willing to work, are they going to be a cohesive unit and are they going to be coachable? And they turned out to be all three of those things."

That group included Henrichs and pitching stalwart Noelle Wright, who have helped transform the team from afterthought in the state to knocking on the door of a state title.

Henrichs said it has not been easy, and has taken more than the players' fair share of dedication and hard work. Whether it's Henrichs taking extra swings and ground balls after practice, catcher Stacey Stanger working behind the dish into the wee hours of the night or Wright turning Sundays into another opportunity to practice her pitching, the Knights have not been satisfied with where they have ended up the last couple of years.

"To be honest I didn't think it was going to happen," Henrichs said. "I was very nervous. But we have all put in so much time ... We've all done those little things. At the beginning I didn't think it was possible, but now that I see how much time we've put in, it's well worth it. We did it and we're here now."

Henrichs added that the way the team has come together has added to the success of the Knights in the playoffs.

It hasn't always been that way for Irrigon softball, though. Senior Kim Campos remembers well when the team was not as close, as one of the charter members of the team in its infancy.

The difference, according to Campos, is the teamwork. Whereas in years past the Knights worked more individually and fell apart at tough times, the players have rallied around each other in those situations during the current playoff run. Everyone has contributed, she said, from stars like Wright and Henrichs, to the last player off the bench.

"This team has come a long ways," Campos said. "Just from becoming a new softball program and establishing ourselves. Getting to know each other was very tough. But I've been here for four years and I've seen it keep growing. They keep coming up the ladder. I'm really hoping this year is a statement for the softball players to come, that anything's possible."

More importantly, it could be a statement to the school and the community. Since opening the doors at Irrigon High School five years ago, the only team to advance to the state tournament has been the softball team. This past winter, Rosario Rios became the first athlete to win a state title with a championship in wrestling.

Just reaching the state title game has been a boost to the community.

"It seems like we are leaders among the athletic programs," Wright said. "To be the first team to go to a final or even make it past the first round is great for us."

"(Winning state) would mean a lot," Campos said. "For me it would be my last time to do anything as a high school athlete, but for the school it would just open up windows to everyone that wants to play sports because our wrestling team has been the only one to win state awards. I just think it would help the city of Irrigon and everybody would come together, even those who don't know softball."

The road is not over, though, and the final test will not be an easy one. Defending champion Union has already downed the top team in Irrigon's division, Pilot Rock, and is led by returning state player of the year Jessy Reynolds in the circle.

The Knights, though, are more than confident in their own ace, Wright.

"I have all the confidence in the world in Noelle Wright; the last couple of weeks she has been one of the most focused athletes I've ever seen," McElligott said. "She wakes up the day of a game and has tunnel vision, she knows what she wants and she goes and gets it. There isn't really a fear factor for Jessica Reynolds. We respect everyone, but we fear no one."

Playing the likes of Pilot Rock and Weston-McEwen during league play has more than prepared the Knights for the playoffs, McElligott added, with the caveat that as they go further and further in the postseason the margin for error becomes less and less.

"After our last five to six games I don't think (Wright) should have a doubt in the world about our defense," Henrichs said. "Everyone tries their hardest to keep the ball in front of us and we're pushing even more for her because she puts so much work into it."

Playing their best softball of the year in the postseason has come in part by the fuel of proving everybody wrong. Not given more than a cursory glance, the Knights have made success out of doubt and will try and do it against the best in the state.

"The first time we played them we were stuck on the fact she was the defending state player of the year," Henrichs said. "But now, for me, I feel like I've taken a lot of extra practice swinging the bat and I'm stoked to get in the box against (Reynolds). She's the one you want to hit against."

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