It was their time. It was just their time.
If a program can consistently generate elite teams year after year after year, as the WVC softball program has done during the course of the past decade, statistical probabilities will indicate that one of those elite squads is bound to navigate the quirks and unpredictable nature of postseason play and win a championship.
The Knights entered the 2013 season as seven-time defending Northwest Athletic Association of Community College East Region champions, but they hadn’t won an NWAACC title in that span.
The 2013 squad not only won the program’s eighth straight East title, but went on to win its first NWAACC championship as well; the Knights beat Douglas College 6-5 on Monday in Portland to win the title.
How and why did this particular team, out of all of coach Shelly Pflugrath’s great teams, achieve its ultimate goal? It’s a simple question with a more nuanced answer.
“This sophomore group is so competitive and so driven, given what happened to us last year,” sophomore pitcher Hailey Bator said shortly after the Knights beat the Royals at the Owens Sports Complex at Delta Park. “We had solid freshmen coming in. We just needed to take things game by game. We knew that this was the only place for us to go. We deserved to win it.”
Here’s a breakdown of why the Knights proved they were the best team in the NWAACC this year:
The Knights didn’t have a tremendously powerful offense this season; their 18 home runs (16th-best in the NWAACC) and .466 slugging percentage (13th) were middle-of-the-pack figures. However, WVC did just about everything else great on offense: it led the NWAACC in walks (174) and stolen bases (92), was second in on-base percentage (.427), seventh in total bases (592) and struck out 138 times, eighth-fewest in the league. The Knights were caught stealing just five times.
During the course of the regular season, and especially during the NWAACC tournament against better pitching, the Knights used what’s known as small ball and applied pressure to score runs. Their baserunning — going first to third on a single, first to home on a double, advancing a base on a pitch in the dirt — was exceptional.
“One thing we talk about a lot is controlling the controllable,” Pflugrath said Monday. “We can’t control if the other team has a great pitcher, but we can control running the bases hard all the time, knowing when to move up a base. We work on baserunning every day, and take a lot of pride in it.”
The most critical factor of a softball team’s defense is its pitching, and that’s the category in which WVC had a distinct advantage over its NWAACC brethren this season. Bator, who will play for the University of Washington next season, and Kirstie Thomas formed the association’s best pitching tandem — Bator won the traditional pitcher’s triple crown, leading the NWAACC in wins (26), earned-run average (0.95) and strikeouts (284). She walked just 29 batters and allowed 79 hits in 162 innings, and limited opposing batters to a .400 on base-plus-slugging percentage.
Thomas, more of a pitch-to-contact pitcher than Bator, posted a 2.66 ERA (fifth-best in the conference) in 97 1/3 innings.
As a team, the Knights ranked first in runs allowed (102), strikeouts (370), ratio (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, 0.97). Their 79 walks was the third fewest in the conference, and they gave up just 20 home runs.
“I don’t know how I can express (what they’ve meant to me and the program),” Pflugrath said. “They are special people and special players. They fueled each others’ fire; they found an ally (in each other). It was a great thing for them to have someone else around who understood how hard it is to be a pitcher, and they were each other’s biggest fan.”
At the start of the season, Pflugrath was concerned about the team’s infield defense — the Knights featured four freshmen at the infield spots. By the end of the season, the play of the quartet (Julia Rambo, Becky Wall, Haley Hess and Kinley Pope) was a strength.
The Knights committed 50 errors in 48 games, basically one miscue per contest.
“They were outstanding,” Pflugrath said of her freshmen infielders. “We have several different defenses that we use, and there wasn’t a time this year when they were not in the right defense. They covered every play correctly.
“Before we got (to the tournament), I asked the sophomores to tell the rest of the team how they thought we’d do at the start of the year. They just laughed; they thought we’d be horrible. I thought that I’d have the biggest coaching job of my life in front of me. That’s how far (the freshmen) have come.”
Pflugrath had an uncanny ability to keep her team’s expectations high, but keep them grounded at the same time.
“I told (the players Tuesday) that the best part of what we did was that we were able to do it having fun,” Pflugrath said. “(Winning the title) didn’t come with a sense of relief. That’s what made it more special. I’ll never forget the look of pure joy on their (faces) after we won.”