“Hold your heads up. Hold your heads up,” coach Eric Keller told his girls Tuesday evening outside the dugout, as a strong west wind swirled dust devils around the infield of the Hood River Valley Eagles’ home ballpark. Coated with dirt from a hard-fought and heartbreaking 3-2 loss against the Pendleton Buckaroos, the girls held back tears from the sting of the loss, and the realization that their season had come to an abrupt end, while the Buckaroos, celebrating raucously in the distance, would go on to play in Saturday’s OSAA 5A State Softball Championship.
The Eagles came into the game with all the momentum of a freight train, having won 10 straight league games, half of them by shutout, then two state playoff games, both by shutout, to advance to the semifinal, which they hosted due to finishing the season ranked No. 2 in the state. They had been derailed twice by Pendleton early in the season, however (the teams split wins 2-2 in their four league matchups), a detail Keller and the Eagles knew well going into one of the biggest games in team history.
Uncharacteristically, the Eagles managed just three hits offensively, while committing five errors defensively that accounted for two of Pendleton’s three runs.
“We just didn’t play our best game,” Keller said. “We gave them opportunities and they capitalized on them; and they gave us opportunities that we did not capitalize on. That’s what it comes down to.”
Although credited with the loss, senior Kayla Byers pitched one of her best games of the season, tallying 11 strikeouts, walking none and throwing an impressive 96-percent strike percentage as she closed out five of seven innings with KO’s with Pendleton runners on base.
“Kayla put us on her shoulders and carried us,” Keller said of Byers. “She did a tremendous job for us all season.”
The game started out anxiously off-rhythm for HRV, and from the sidelines the bad mojo seemed to carry through the rest of the game. On the opening pitch, Pendleton’s leadoff batter plinked the ball in play and reached base via error in what should have been an easy out. Byers struck out the next three to end the inning. Two HRV errors in the second, both off sacrifice bunts, resulted in Pendleton’s first run before Byers could again close out the inning with two strikeouts. Another costly error in the fifth, again off a sacrifice bunt, gave Pendleton a 2-0 lead.
Meanwhile, offensively the Eagles had no trouble connecting with the ball, but struggled to keep it out of the mitts of Pendleton’s defenders. HRV only struck out four times; all the other outs came from relatively easy grounders and pop flies.
“We really struggled at the plate,” Keller said. “Every ball we hit seemed to be right to them.”
Annie Veatch and Made Vallejo singled in the second and third innings, but both were left on base. After two groundouts and a pop fly in the fourth, the girls caught a big break in the fifth to tie the score, rouse the sizable home crowd and bring the Eagles, who seemed deflated thus far, quickly back into the game.
The rally was sparked by a huge double to centerfield by Jessie Karr; she stole third a few pitches later, then stole home off a wild pitch to get the Eagles on the board. Vallejo followed with a bunt to get on base, then Erika Enriquez tipped a ball that went into play and was wildly overthrown; Vallejo rounded third, past the enthusiastically wind-milling coach Keller and the HRV dugout, to tie the score.
With two outs in the top of the sixth, Pendleton’s Darrian Lindset stepped up, swung at Byers’ first pitch, and hammered a home run over the left field fence. The Eagles had two more innings to overcome the deficit, but continued to put the ball in play — seven out of eight batters — straight into the hands of Pendleton’s capable defense.
Keller said that although Tuesday’s loss will sting for a while, the girls should keep perspective on what an outstanding season — one of the best, in fact, in HRV softball history.
“If I started the season by telling the girls they would end up ranked second in the state and make it to the semifinals, I think they would call that a very successful season,” he said.
For seniors Byers, Enriquez, Veatch, Tabitha Merten, Sydney McHale, Kainalu Bailey and Rosebud Baker, the game was their last in the Eagle uniform, although for the first three, not the last in general. Keller says Byers is moving on to play softball at East Florida State, Veatch will play at George Fox University and Enriquez will play for Western Oregon.
“Our seniors have been fierce competitors with passion for the sport and compassion for their team,” Keller said. “They are leaving the program better than when they started and their legacy will be felt for years to come. They are leaving a lot of holes to fill, but the next class has the experience and desire to succeed that will be necessary to fill their shoes.”