LA GRANDE — An undefeated run ended in a historic state title for a local softball team.
The Union County Junior Softball team won the Oregon Junior League Championship on Sunday, July 11, at Eastern Oregon University, defeating Warm Springs 10-7. The victory marks the first time a Union County All-Star Little League team has won a state championship since 2004.
“This group was determined to play hard and had great attitudes,” head coach Meghan Counsell said. “They really worked at it and were determined.”
A perfect run to the state title
Union County went 5-0 through district and state tournaments to take the crown at the 12-14 age group. The group knocked off Stanfield Juniors 20-5 in the first game of the double-elimination tournament and won 18-4 in a rematch with Stanfield in the district final on Monday, June 21.
Union County defeated District 2 (Clackamas/SE Portland/Taborvilla/Reynolds) 15-5 in the quarterfinals and shut out Warm Springs 11-0 in the semifinal matchup. The team defeated Warm Springs 10-7 in the final round of the state tournament after dominating at the district and state level.
Despite winning every previous game by at least 10 runs, the pressure was on in the championship matchup.
“It got off to a slow start. The girls were nervous and it just took them a bit of time to settle in,” Counsell said. “Once they got their confidence going and started being aggressive at the plate and on the bases, it started to click.”
The game was tied 4-4 after four innings, but a five-run fifth inning caused a major momentum swing and propelled the Union County team toward victory.
“I was a little nervous but I knew that our team would probably pull it off because we’ve been working at this really hard,” Union County infielder and pitcher Keira Counsell said. “When things get tough, we always seem to pull through and get the job done.”
Key performances boost team effort
Infielder Kendra Hensley came up big at the plate throughout the tournament, but particularly in the championship game. Hensley tallied three RBIs and one run in a 2-for-3 performance at the plate. In such a close game, her run production was crucial in the team’s championship pursuit.
“I’ve been trying to work really hard at getting my hitting down, and I’ve been working a lot with my coach before practice to improve,” she said.
Hensley accumulated 13 RBIs, five runs and a .500 batting average through the two district matchups and three state-level games.
“After I started hitting the ball I got a lot more confident that I could keep getting hits,” Hensley said. “Once I got that confidence down, it just kept going.”
In the semifinal matchup, a stellar pitching performance from Keira Counsell put Union County in the driver’s seat to advance to the championship round. Counsell pitched five scoreless innings and struck out seven batters en route to a 11-0 shutout. She also contributed to the team’s offensive efforts, adding four RBIs and two runs in the semifinal and scoring three runs in the championship game.
“It was really amazing because we worked so hard and practiced so much for that moment,” she said. “There were so many things we did in the games that we worked on a lot in practice.”
Redemption for Union County All-Stars
For a number of the athletes on the Union County team, this year’s tournament is redemption for the loss suffered in the last state championship game they participated in. Competing in the 9-11 age bracket in 2019, several players on this year’s team lost to Willow Creek in a narrow 2-1 defeat in the championship matchup on July 14, 2019. The tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 in 2020, so the Union County team had to wait for the chance to put the loss behind them.
“This time around we pulled together really well and played together like a team should,” Hensley said. “We just communicated with each other and when one person got down we would all cheer them up.”
The Union County players credit the team’s camaraderie and work ethic to the success this season. Keira Counsell relished the opportunity to play at Eastern Oregon’s Peggy Anderson Field and compete against the state’s top talent.
“I thought the other team’s sportsmanship was amazing,” she said. “They worked really hard and we also worked very hard. We competed super tough and they gave us a run for our money.”
End of the run comes too soon for team
Unfortunately for the Union County All-Star team, Little League Baseball and Softball canceled the regional tournaments and national World Series competition at the junior level this year due to the pandemic. All age groups except for 12U were canceled in both sports, eliminating Union County’s chances of advancing any further than state. The Junior League World Series has been hosted in Kirkland, Washington, since 1999, and no team from Oregon has ever made the final.
“We wish we could take this group of girls to regionals,” Meghan Counsell said.
Following an undefeated summer season, Union County looked poised to make a run in regional play.
“I’m super sad because I feel like our team could have done really well there,” Keira Counsell said. “I’m glad that we ended on a win and I’m just so glad we won state.”
The Union County Junior All-Star team will end its season with a large question mark regarding its potential World Series run, but it still made history.
The junior all-stars became the first Union County team to win first place at a state softball tournament since the Union County girls team under head coach Dick Griffin did so in 2004.
The Union County team not only paved its way to one of the most successful seasons in Union County Little League history, but its players have bright futures in their individual careers following strong showings this year.