The high expectations. The pressure. The target on their backs as being the defending state champions.
None of that kept the La Grande Tigers from doing what they intended to do all season — repeat as state champs.
The Tigers scored four early runs to build a lead it would never relinquish and put a stop to a late rally on the way to a 4-2 win over the Henley Hornets Saturday in the 4A softball state championship game at Jane Sanders Stadium in Eugene.
“The expectation of us coming back (to the championship game) and to win motivated us to play well,” junior pitcher Allie Brock said after a 12-strikeout effort in the win. “We play really well under pressure, and I think that contributed to our performance today.”
The Tigers faced their share of pressure in Saturday’s title game rematch against the Hornets, but none tougher than when Henley made its final push at the lead in the sixth inning. Trailing 4-1, the Hornets opened the sixth with two straight singles and a fielder’s choice, then cut the deficit to two runs on an infield RBI single by Lilly Poe — with the top of their potent offense coming up, bases loaded and nobody out.
The infield met in the pitcher’s circle to regroup, shake off the rough start to the frame and — in the familial sense that has carried the team all year — encourage one another through the pressure-packed moment.
“We just wanted to let each other know we were all present there mentally, that we needed to stay calm and pull through, and we had a lot of confidence in each other,” Brock said.
Junior Jaiden Hafer, who had two RBIs in the win, said in that huddle they reminded themselves that they had one other’s backs and to take it one play at a time. Brock even said she had to focus on one pitch at a time.
One by one, the Tigers’ ace navigated the top three batters to get out of the inning with the lead intact. Brock forced Paige Barnett to pop out to Jacie Howton at second base, struck out Kylie Melsness for the fourth time, then induced Kaila Mick to pop out to Howton to end the threat.
“(The sense of family is) what makes us get through games — just like tonight,” Hafer said. “We got through that tough situation when the bases were loaded. We were stressed, but we knew we could overcome those obstacles and get the job done.”
“If we would have lost it on each other, an error would have got to our heads (and) we would have turned on each other, there is no way we would have come out of that,” senior Alaina Carson said. “The only thing that got us out of it was saying ‘We came here to have fun. We came here to play softball with people we love. Let’s just get back in and have a good time.’”
There was even confidence within the team that had Henley’s rally continued, La Grande would have been fine.
“I was never really worried,” senior Kara Gooderham said. “We’re a great team. We would have pulled something out and would have gotten it done.”
Brock rode the momentum into the seventh to lock up the state title with a strikeout of Maddie Perez, a popup by Carli Moore to Carson at shortstop and a strikeout of Jessica Northcutt on three pitches to set off the celebration.
“(In the) seventh inning, she could smell it, she could taste it, it’s right there,” head coach Woody Wright said of Brock. “She just needed to finish and do her job.”
Brock allowed just four hits, all of them singles, against an offense that averaged more than 13 runs per game. She did walk seven batters — four alone in the fifth inning — but managed to work out of that jam as well. She did so while battling a sore right knee that began to bother her midway through the contest.
Junior Jayce Seavert said she wasn’t surprised at all by the way Brock fought through the major trial late.
“I’ve seen this before, because I’ve played with her (for years). She really gave it her all, (despite) her knee hurting,” Seavert said.
The Tigers wasted little time building a quick lead, taking advantage of some wildness by Poe, Henley’s starting pitcher, who walked a batter and hit two more in the inning, including Hafer with the bases loaded to force home a run for a 1-0 lead.
La Grande extended the margin to 4-0 in the third inning on RBI singles by Hafer and senior Lexee Gomes, and a bases-loaded walk to freshman Kinzy Bowen.
“It doesn’t even feel real yet,” said Gomes, who along with Carson and Gooderham graduated on the field postgame. “Last year’s state championship (still) doesn’t feel real to me, but (this is) going to be the most memorable thing I will look back on from high school.”
And the championship that puts a wrap on what is arguably the best season in program history — a 24-1 record, a team that went undefeated against Class 4A, a 275-37 scoring margin on the season — in the minds of many of the players, is better than the first.
“They’re both really nice, but (for) this one we had to work a little bit harder since we had that big target on our back the whole season,” Howton said. “This one, we knew it was going to happen, but to finally get it feels so nice.”
“This one’s even better. Just being able to come back and bring home another championship for the town,” she said. “We’re all very grateful and excited.”