The 2019 All-Area softball team is headed by a pair of state champions with a couple good stories to tell.
The MVP, perhaps unsurprisingly, is Woodland’s Olivia Grey, the Portland State-bound pitcher who overwhelmingly dominated hitters en route to a second-straight 2A state title for the Beavers.
Kevin Sprague, the head coach of the Clatskanie Tigers, helped author a perfect season and the first softball state title for the school, right on the heels of the first-ever girls basketball state championship by largely the same players.
“Coming into this season, last year I knew I posted up pretty good stats, but this year I wanted to make sure I kind of changed into an even better pitcher, for not only me but for my team,” Grey said. “And just to prove that Woodland, no one should really mess with us. We wanted to be the most dominant out there.”
Grey’s story starts a couple years ago.
When being recruited by Bradley University in Illinois, she was given an ultimatum: lose a significant amount of weight or we’re out.
“It just kind of one of those things like, ‘Ouch,’” Grey said. “That’s nothing you ever want to hear from anyone, but it was kind of a reality check too. I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not at my peak. Maybe I’m not where I should be. Maybe I can improve myself.’”
She lost upwards of 40 pounds, transforming her body and entirely changing her lifestyle. She started eating better. She started working out three times a week, and upping that to five or six times a week.
It reaped benefits almost immediately. More schools started to come calling. Her numbers went to crazy heights – or lows, depending on the figure.
Her senior season, she was nearly unhittable. She allowed just one earned run in 147 innings for an astounding 0.05 ERA and a perfect 26-0 record. She allowed just 28 hits in those 26 games, including two no-hitters in the playoffs. She had 329 strikeouts, or nearly 13 per game.
“It seems like when she was younger things didn’t come easy to her, so she’s always had a really good work ethic,” Woodland coach Tom Christensen said. “A couple years ago she really got serious and lost 40 pounds and gain a lot of muscle. That was before last season, and she had a great season last season, then surprisingly even better this year. She’s always been really determined, I think it’s just her work ethic.”
But even then, with all the success, the attention from media and fans and college coaches, Grey never stopped working.
As a senior, she’d pitch every day while her teammates took batting practice. She never led her success overwhelm her work. Games would end and it would be on to the next one, always thinking about how she could get better.
“I didn’t really take a real off day the whole season,” Grey said. “I would wake up earlier to go do something. I was always thinking about – after we finished a game I was thinking, ‘What’s next? How am I gonna prepare for this? What do I need to do to get my body in shape? What do I need to do to be a better teammate? What changes do I need make for pitching? What pitches weren’t working for me?’ All these questions about how am I gonna get better for the next game? I just never was okay with where I was at.”
It led to a scholarship from the nearby Vikings, whose recruiting approach stuck with the Woodland senior after an earlier unofficial visit was positive but still left her unsure about their prospects.
But then she met with the coaching staff, comprised of Meadow McWhorter, Kellie Wilkerson, Iris Rodriguez and Rick McWhorter, and was convinced.
It wasn’t about replacing this person or that person, Grey said. It wasn’t about playing time. The meeting was about how she would fit in the program. It was about “What can you do for Portland State softball?”
“It was more about, ‘What are you gonna do for our program? What impact are you gonna make?’” Grey said. “Not necessarily if I’m gonna be a starter or I’m not, just how I was bringing this element of team. That just made me really happy and piqued my interest more because they’re giving me a role in this. I’m gonna be part of a team.
“Just a couple of the other schools I was talking to, nothing would be guaranteed. Nothing at Portland State’s gonna be either, but I knew – let’s say I sit my first two years. I’m sitting, but I know my coaches believe in me. I know my teammates believe in me. I’m playing that key role of most supportive teammate I can be sitting on the bench.”
Sprague led a group that was disciplined and focused all year.
With a group full of sophomores, it could be easy to get wrapped up in results, to let the vast amounts of success to take them out of their process. But never did, or at least very sparingly.
And that’s largely due to Sprague’s constant reminders of that.
“We don’t change our approach,” Sprague said. “That’s the message I’ve been trying to give to the kids. We had incidents during the year where we put 8 or 10 runs on people and we had a chance to end the game in the fifth inning. But yet we would go out and get out of our process. We would change, we would swing at first pitches, we would do things aggressively in an effort to try and maybe end it in the fifth inning. Then I’d come back to them and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve been talking about with staying focused and doing what we do.”
That very scenario happened in the state title game against old foe Dayton at Jane Sanders Stadium in Eugene.
Clatskanie had its worst inning in weeks, giving up four runs, the lead and it felt like the perfect season was slipping away.
But Clatskanie stayed true to itself. It put the ball in play. It took extra bases when presented, and it took the lead right back and won going away, demonstrating the discipline and focus and approach that got them to that point.
Clatskanie didn’t change, and it paid off.
“In the championship game, when we had that inning in the top of the fourth when we gave up those four runs, I’m thinking about the 27 games we played, the only other time we had an inning that felt like that was at Grant Union when we played them early in the season we had an inning like that where we fell behind,” Sprague said. “Then we tied it up and basically in the same way – I think we went to nine innings in that game – they don’t panic. They just double down. They just reset. It’s really quite a remarkable thing for a bunch of 15, 16, 18 year-old kids.”
It helps, of course, to have a handful of transcendent athletes to fall back on. Olivia Sprague at short. Alexis Smith at second. Shelby Blodgett in the circle. Maris Jackson was great in right field. Trinity Hamm was a solid catcher, and more.
It helps, of course, that Clatskanie averaged nearly 11 runs per game and allowed just 69 runs, the second-fewest in the 3A ranks.
But in Sprague’s estimation, it’s the mental approach that separates the Tigers from the pack. And that’s largely due to his message.
“When you have nine or 10 kids that all understand,” he said. “It becomes the easiest thing in the world to coach. I just have to consistently deliver the message and help them get there. And that’s where I’m at with this group. They’re on their way. It’s just a matter of me making sure they’re being helped the way they need to be helped.”