By BEN MCCARTY
News staff writer
March 10, 2007
Winning the InterMountain Conference title and advancing to the state playoffs last season does not mean much to Hood River Valley High School softball coach Phil Hukari this week.
He is too busy trying to get his young team, which lost six seniors – including three all-state picks – from last year’s team, focused on this season.
“We are not going to win games on tradition or reputation,” Hukari told the members of his team as he gathered them around him before practice on Thursday.
This year’s squad will bear little resemblance to last year’s team that went 16-0 in conference play and 24-2 overall.
Where last year’s team had plenty of power hitters throughout the lineup, which prevented opposing pitchers from pitching around any individual hitter, this year’s team will rely on the bat of Brianne Rowley the only returning true power threat on the team.
Where last year’s team was able to use overpowering rising pitches to dominate opponents, this year’s team will rely on sinking pitches and a defense that will have to scoop up the ground balls that will result.
Even with the loss of much of the team’s offensive firepower from last season, the Eagles know they are going to have to generate some pop to stay competitive as they move back into the Mount Hood Conference.
“I’d like to see us step up to the plate and be able to hit,” senior Sarah Wood, who will be manning third base for the Eagles this year, said, adding: “Our offense needs to be strong.”
Moving back into the Mount Hood, with its larger teams, means that Hukari has more reason than ever to be glad for the 47 players who came out for the team this season, the most he has seen in years.
“We’ve got a lot of freshmen and sophomores,” he said. “We are building around Brianne.”
While his team rebuilds and prepares for new challenges, Hukari is willing to wait for his lineup to sort itself out. He plans on using the team’s non-league games to get a better idea of who will bat in what order and play what position in the field.
“Its all open to change,” he said.
Rowley, who will man second base for the Eagles, knows that the team’s younger players will have to step up this season if the team wants to have a shot at making a run in the new conference.
“I’m expecting a lot of players to fill in spots,” she said.
Seniors Alysha Brower and Lindsey Smith will be expected to anchor the pitching staff for the Eagles and both know that they have important roles to play if the team is to have success this season.
“I want to get more in shape and to work on more pitches,” Brower said.
Added Smith: “I want to keep healthy and play as best as I can.”
Even with the influx of new players, Hukari thinks that the Eagles will have chance in the Mount Hood. If they had stayed in the Intermountain he feels they would likely have a much easier path back to state, but several other teams in the new league are undergoing changes as well. Central Catholic will likely be the league powerhouse, but Barlow and several other teams are breaking in many young players this year.
“A lot of teams lost a lot of key players,” he said.
With less than a week to go before its first game, the players are aware they still have much improving to do before league play starts.
“We need a little more work,” Smith said. “We are still rough around the edges.”
With the lack of firepower in the offense, Hukari is placing special emphasis on defense this season, and expects his team to keep up the intensity every practice and every game.
As they prepared to break from the huddle following a team picture, and start working on defensive drills, he made it clear what he expects from his team this season.
“We have an hour left of practice,” he said. “I want a hard practice. I want you to work your butts off.”