Tom Christensen wasn’t sleeping well, but he had good reason: his first state tournament as head coach was set to begin in a few hours. What he didn’t know is that the best four-game stretch of Woodland’s season would follow, and a championship trophy hoisted at the end of it all.
Woodland’s bats came alive. The Beavers hit nine home runs over four games, and sprayed hits all over the field. It was a machine, and the Beavers were unstoppable.
This year presents a new set of challenges. But most of the lineup returns, as does TDN All-Area Player of the Year Olivia Grey.
“I thought we’d be pretty good but I had no idea where we’d fall,” coach Tom Christensen said. “Adding Olivia (Grey) was obviously huge, but our bats really improved and we improved all over. I think that going into this year, we’re definitely way more confident.”
Grey dominated last year, striking out 69 hitters at state, and 380 on the season all while finishing with an ERA under 1.00. Grey has started 2019 in similar form, and the rest of the team continues to develop around her.
Girls are battling to catch fly balls, making diving catches and doing other things that wouldn’t have happened in other seasons. The level of effort in practice has reached another level.
It’s not just the defense, though. Christensen believes the offense has gotten better too.
“A lot of the girls worked hard over the offseason because they want to continue to have that success,” Christensen said. “I think some of them see others hit home runs and hard hit balls and it kind of pushes them to get stronger. A lot of them are working out and going to hitting coaches. It seems like, now, when we have batting practice there’s a lot more home runs.”
“When we get one good hit, we feed off each other really well,” Payten Foster said. “We’re all really good hitters.”
DANCING AWAY THE STRESS
Woodland became an outlier last year for reasons other than the dominance it enjoyed at state. What preceded those games was a mini-dance-club atmosphere, with a portable speaker blasting top-40 music and the team dancing around to it. The Beavers were having a party while other teams approached games with what they may have felt was a more determined routine.
“We were really prepared,” Kaily Christensen said. “Our coaches did a great job preparing us.”
Added Kelly Sweyer: “It all just came together at the right time, and we’re all capable of hitting home runs, so it all came together.”
Relaxed is how the team likes to be. The girls play their best when nerves are gone, when pressure is released. That also brings up a nice problem to have: Christensen doesn’t want them to lose the excitement which normally comes with winning.
“It’s important to me that they keep having fun and we enjoy the ride,” Christensen said. “We don’t just say ‘well if we don’t get to state it’s a failure.’”
There’s a target of sorts, hanging on the Woodland dugout fence. The Beavers understand that there’s plenty of other good teams that want their day in the sun.
“I think there’s going to be a little bit of pressure, just because we won state and naturally teams are going to want to beat us,” Kaily said. “Maybe that’s not necessarily pressure that we’re feeling, but more of an importance on doing the little things right and getting stuff done that’s going to win us games.”
YOUTH IS ON THEIR SIDE
What sets Woodland’s championship apart from many others is youth. The roster was made of seven sophomores, five juniors and only two seniors.
“We didn’t play with everyone growing up but we did a really good job of bonding and forming that chemistry and that’s just when we play well,” Kaily Christensen said. “When we play loose and have that chemistry; and we always have fun. We always make sure we’re having fun, that’s when we play our best.”
Chemistry forms when you’re having fun, Foster said, and the group said one of the team’s goals is to have fun game by game.
Now in his second year coaching the girls, Christensen shares the youth a little bit. He spent the winter debating how to approach this season.
“Do we do exactly the same thing, or do I push them to get better, or do I let them be more relaxed?” Christensen said. “You saw at state, they’re joking around and goofing off and having fun. … We talked about that a lot. We don’t do anything much different in practice, but I debated on talking about the championship hangover, or do I ignore it and not think about what it is.
“Most of the girls haven’t ever heard of what that is, so we talked about it.”
That discussion ended up focusing on one major point.
“We want to be happy when we win a game,” Sweyer said. “We don’t want to be relieved that we didn’t lose.”