WENATCHEE — For all practical purposes, Wenatchee Valley College softball coach Shelly Pflugrath has known that the Knights are the best team in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges East Region for some time now. The players have known it as well.
But Pflugrath and the Knights never take anything for granted. Even though it surely doesn’t happen very often, they know they’re capable of getting beat at any time That’s why they work relentlessly to make sure that doesn’t happen. That’s why, in Pflugrath’s opinion, each East Region championship the program racks up — the Knights clinched their eight straight East title Friday with a 9-1 and 8-0 wins over Treasure Valley at North Rotary Park — should be treasured and appreciated for what it is and what it means.
“I hope nobody is getting bored by our success,” Pflugrath said. “To take the program to where it is now, I’m very proud. This is very special. This is not a four-year program, where you get to work with a group of kids for four years. We basically have a new team every year. I’m proud of every one (of our East titles). The kids come in knowing that there’s high expectations, and they fulfill those expectations.”
The greatness of the Knights’ dynasty is approaching historical proportions.
Pflugrath said that as far as she knows, no other team in any sport has won eight consecutive region championships in the history of the NWAACC.
“We’ll have to have (local sports historian) Bruce Bennett look into that,” Pflugrath said.
During the past eight years, the Knights have set numerous records, won a dizzying amount of games, and seen a number of their players receive top honors and go on to play at four-year programs.
But there’s one thing that they haven’t done — win an NWAACC title. The players are satisfied with winning the East — that was their first priority entering the season. Now they can turn their attention to winning the NWAACC Tournament, to be held later this month in Portland.
“I think we’re playing well all-around, but we have to keep working hard,” said freshman second baseman Becky Wall. “There’s always things we can improve on. We have to keep working every day (with our focus) on the ultimate goal.”
On Friday, the Knights, as usual, received stellar pitching from aces Hailey Bator (three hits allowed, seven strikeouts in five innings in the first game) and Kirstie Thomas (two hits allowed, four strikeouts in the second contest), and played excellent defense (they didn’t commit an error in the two games).
They also hit the ball well, especially in the first contest. But when it comes to generating runs, the Knights (36-3, 23-1 East) perhaps rely on their baserunning more than most teams. Baserunning can be an underrated and under-appreciated aspect of a team’s offensive attack — with the exception of stolen bases, good baserunning can be hard to quantify, or label with a statistic. But Pflugrath and the Knights take it very seriously, and it shows.
The Knights stole eight bases Friday, upping their season total to 65 second-most in the NWAACC. They’ve been caught stealing just three times all year.
But stolen base ability is only one component of good baserunning. Good baserunning teams feature players that can take an extra base on a base hit — go from first base to third, or score from second. Good baserunning teams feature players that can move up a base on a pitch in the dirt, taking the opposing catcher by surprise. Good baserunning teams will study opponents’ tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in order to get a better idea of when and how to take an extra base. Good baserunning teams will fluster their opponents into making mistakes.
The Knights do all of that.
“It makes a big difference,” Pflugrath said. “We want our players to have good (baserunning) instincts. We pride ourselves on it. Baserunning is one thing you can control. You don’t have to be fast in order to be a good baserunner; you just have to be smart. If you’re smart and fast, you can be deadly.”
The Knights work on baserunning every day in practice. In the fall, they work on basic fundamentals. This time of year, they emphasize situational baserunning.
Of course, every once in a while, their aggressiveness won’t be rewarded, and a baserunner will get thrown out; that happened twice to the Knights on Friday. But to Pflugrath, making an occasional out on the bases is worth all of the good things that their brand of baserunning brings during the course of a long season.
“We want to be aggressive and take advantage of every chance we have,” said Wall, who stole two bases and alertly took third base on grounded pitches twice in the second game, and leads the team with 20 stolen bases for the season. “Mainly, (we rely on) instinct. You have to know your speed and trust it. We always try for two bases (on a hit), and we’ll rely on coach (Pflugrath) to stop us if she needs to.
“We like (to practice baserunning). We want to be ready for any situation. That way, we can ready balls off the bats and know the angles and be aggressive; if we do that, the other team will be thinking about what we’re doing instead of what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Wall had four hits, including two doubles, and three RBI to lead the Knights’ 13-hit attack in the opener. Rae Dorcas and Riliey Cullip each had two hits and two RBI in the second contest.