La Grande Tigers softball head coach Kirk Travis said he’s talking with his team about approaching Saturday’s state championship game appearance as if it were a business trip.
The Tigers, the top seed entering the Class 4A state playoffs, face the No. 3 Henley Hornets in the title game at the OSU Softball Complex in Corvallis, seeking the first championship in program history.
“I try to keep them grounded. We have to get our business done, and we can reap the rewards later,” Travis said. “I think they’re ready to go. They are relaxed, comfortable and having fun with the game. That’s what it’s all about.”
The Tigers qualified for the championship game with Tuesday’s 5-0 win over Philomath/Alsea, while the Hornets — last year’s state champion — got by South Umpqua 6-3 to return to the title game.
Saturday’s contest is a rematch from last year’s semifinals, when the Hornets escaped with a 1-0 win on its way to an undefeated championship season.
A year later, it’s a game that still doesn’t sit well with the Tigers.
“I feel like we have some unfinished business we need to take care of, and I feel like that motivates us even more to go out and really give it our all,” sophomore pitcher Allie Brock said. “It makes us more focused. We’re really driven to win this game.”
Added junior center fielder Kara Gooderham: “We obviously took it very hard last year when we lost to Henley, and we’re ready to play them again.”
The matchup pits two teams against each other who have plenty of firepower on offense and stingy defenses.
Henley’s offense, at least on paper, is a bit more potent. The Hornets, who enter with a record of 26-6 overall, are averaging 10.27 runs per game. Four of their regular starters are hitting .450 or better on the season, with the top threats on offense being Kaila Mick (.583 batting average, nine home runs, 45 RBIs), Maddie Perez (.485, seven, 44) and Tanner Higgins (.454, 13, 45).
That trio and the rest of the Hornets will be facing a team that has become one of the toughest to score on in the state. The Tigers (22-4) have allowed a Class 4A-best 2.15 runs per game, have thrown 10 shutouts, and have held an opponent to two runs or less 20 times this season.
Brock, who will get the start Saturday, has been dominant all season, entering with a 15-2 record, an ERA of 0.92, and 190 strikeouts in 99 innings. She’s been even better in the playoffs, throwing 19 innings, allowing just six hits and striking out 34 batters in winning all three games.
“That’s impressive at any level,” Travis said of Brock’s stats. “She’s working hard to keep her pitching streak going. She’s had one run scored against her in the playoffs this year. She has worked so hard at her craft, and she has mastered it well.”
La Grande faces an equally stingy Hornets team that has allowed just 2.4 runs per game, has 11 shutouts, and has held 20 opponents to two runs or less. Lilly Poe, who started in the title game last year for the Hornets, figures to be the starting pitcher Saturday. Poe has a 21-6 record, a 1.92 ERA, and 200 strikeouts in 135 innings pitched.
The Tigers themselves have been tough to stop on offense, averaging 8.77 runs per game. Jayce Seavert has been the main cog, leading the team in 10 offensive categories, including average (.527), home runs (16) and RBIs (48).
But essentially everyone in the lineup has pitched in for La Grande. Of the Tigers’ regular starters, six are batting .380 or better. Mady Bell is hitting .475 with three home runs and 36 RBIs. Jaiden Hafer is batting .387 with five home runs and 23 RBIs. And both Jacie Howton (.412) and Alaina Carson (.392) are hitting close to or above .400.
Poe also has experience against La Grande, as she threw the shutout in last year’s semifinals.
How the Tigers respond to Poe this time is one of the clear keys to Saturday’s game.
“Our players have worked hard enough to become better and more disciplined batters. I think it’s going to be a great matchup, our hitting against their pitching,” Travis said.