Sunshine, not rain, poured down on Recreation Park in Chehalis as W.F. West softball hit its quad softball diamonds for the first time since mid-March on Monday.
It’s a rare, sunny mid-October day here on the red-turf infields and grassy-green outfields and the Bearcats are taking full advantage of it.
The WIAA updated its return-to-play guidelines on Oct. 6, allowing team practices and/or training to resume for low, medium, and high-risk sports if players are limited to groups of six in separate parts of the field/court and separated by a buffer zone.
The team didn’t know it was going to be able to practice until early last week.
“It’s one of those things you’ve been thinking about and dreaming about for six months,” W.F. West coach Caty Lieseke said. “It’s just great to be out here and we’ve got a really great day of weather to start.”
It was a welcome return for a team that lost its entire 2020 season in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic that put a halt to all spring high school sports, and then eventually fall sports as well.
So for the first time since March 12, 2020, the Bearcats hit the diamond for a 90-minute practice of assorted drills and conditioning. The main goal for Monday, Lieseke said, was to get the rust off the players as most haven’t played for six months. Even those who play on summer travel teams saw most of their tournaments cancelled as well.
Players funneled into the athletic complex one at a time where Lieseke, standing next to a bucket full of sanitizing equipment, took each of their temperatures and made sure they filled out the proper paperwork online needed before practicing.
The players broke up into pods of six, each with their own coach, and began playing catch to loosen up. Each pod then performed various workouts, such as infield and outfield defense drills, bunting and pop-fly catches.
“Trying to do things that feel normal and make the adjustments as needed,” Lieseke said.
Most of these Bearcats are new to the varsity team. Only two returners have significant varsity experience while a couple others were on varsity but didn’t see any playing time. It’s a new challenge for Lieseke, who is going from a 2020 team that was one of the favorites to win the 2A state title to a squad made up primarily of newcomers.
Lieseke, entering her third year as head coach, was recently named the Washington state Softball Coach of the Year by the National Federation of State High School Associations. It was a surprise award considering no softball teams in the state played this year, but was likely based on the fact that her team placed third in state in 2018, second in 2019 and returned six powerhouse seniors in 2020 that were due for a state title run. The Bearcats are perennial powerhouses in the 2A classification, capturing three state titles in the past eight years (2012, 2015 and 2017).
Now they’ll have some catching up to do. This is easily the youngest team Lieseke has coached. Gone are numerous all-league selections, including Ashlyn Whalen, the top power hitter in W.F. West softball history, who owns the single-season home run record (11) and is now playing for Boise State. Also graduated are Paeytnn Lopez, a first-team all-league catcher who is at Portland State, and Ava Fugate, a first-team all-league third baseman who plays for Colorado Mesa. The trio combined for 25 home runs, 96 RBIs and a .432 batting average in 2019.
Perhaps even more important than losing all those numbers is the leadership experience those players were unable to pass down to the underclassmen with the 2020 season being lost.
“Setting the tone, the younger players didn’t get to see that,” Lieseke said. “Not that they can’t step up and own that, but it’s just going to be different. You rely a lot on your seniors to set the tone for the younger kids every year. We missed that chance.”
A lot of these girls don’t yet know what it means to be a part of Bearcat softball, Lieseke said, but the two that do will be invaluable this season.
The two lone returning starters are junior pitcher Kamy Dacus and senior outfielder Alisha Anderson. Dacus was the pitching MVP of the 2A Evergreen Conference as a freshman in 2019. She racked up 186 strikeouts with a 2.15 ERA in 130 innings. At the plate, she smashed three home runs with a .409 batting average and .682 slugging percentage. Anderson batted .500 with 17 hits, 17 runs, 13 RBIs and one dinger as a freshman in 2018.
But for now, Lieseke and the team are just focusing on staying healthy and abiding by the WIAA and state health regulations. Lieseke ran her practice plans by Athletic Director Jeff Johnson six different times to make sure they were doing what they need to do to be safe.
“I know this is an opportunity that not every school is getting, just based on different school rules and stuff,” Lieseke said. “So to make sure that we continue to have these chances to get out, and all sports do, I’ve never had to put this much planning into just groups and all the different procedures to follow.”
Under the WIAA’s modified sports season calendar for 2020-21, softball is tentatively scheduled to start its preseason spring practices from April 26 to May 2, and then begins a season that runs from May 3 to June 20. Postseason play is slated to go from June 21-27.