When time is called and the Mazama infield huddles in the pitching circle, often, they are relaying a message to its youngest players, pitcher Kennedy Lease.
They need her to answer the bell.
“They are always telling me they got my back,” Lease said.
Todd Nickerson, head coach of the Mazama softball team, knew of the challenges that his team would face in 2019: Molding a green roster and turning them into a team that by season’s end would be playing beyond its experience-level and pushing for a playoff spot.
Eight seniors from 2018 had graduated and only six players — many with limited playing experience — returned.
One position he wasn’t expecting to be inexperienced is in the circle.
Although the Vikings graduated their ace, Caitlin Lotspeich, from last year’s squad, returning was now senior Grace Spoon who tossed 29 innings in 2018.
Through nine games of the year Spoon saw a bulk of the innings, appearing in the circle for all nine games and 44 2/3 innings.
That all changed in the first Skyline series of the season when Spoon suffered an injury that kept her from pitching.
The 5-4 Vikings were all of a sudden lost the small dose of experience they had just in the heart of their season.
“We had nobody else,” Nickerson said.
The daughter of Mazama’s football coach Vic Lease and girls’ basketball coach Joy Lease, she had already carved out a prominent role on the varsity squad, starting at shortstop, hitting at the near the top of the lineup and even seeing spot starts here and there and the occasional relief appearance in the circle.
But not even Nickerson or Lease envisioned her throwing 1,006 of the 1,125 pitches in 11 games since Spoon went down.
“I was expecting Grace to pitch,” Lease said. “But I had to take on that role and to lead the team and I know that I can do it for them.”
“She’s done a great job,” Nickerson said. “She’s built up her stamina, it’s hard on doubleheader days to throw 200 pitches, that’s hard to do.”
Lacking overall team experience, a mid-season pitching overhaul and freshman pitching chance could be a recipe for disaster for a team’s season, especially a team hovering around .500.
“We told her, as well as the other freshman, that they aren’t freshman anymore,” Nickerson said. “They are varsity athletes.”
When she took over there wasn’t much panic in the dugout, rather, a confidence in her that’s only grown each time she has toed the rubber.
“We all trusted her,” said freshman catcher Gracie Hamilton who has been a teammate of Lease’s dating back several years. “Her pitches are accurate, she gets her job done. We have a really good relationship on the team where we trust each other to get our jobs done.”
There have been a couple of clunkers from Lease since taking over, she walked 14 batters and gave up 24 earned runs in the three-game series loss to Phoenix, where she tossed nearly 300 pitches on the doubleheader. And Henley treated her how Henley treats most pitchers they face, scoring 12 earned runs in two games.
It’s one of the adjustments going from pitching against players your age to varsity athletes.
“I can’t always throw a good pitch to them, there can’t give them a bad pitch, they have to be perfect,” Lease said about facing team’s top pitchers. “I just have to hit my spots and know what I’m throwing.”
What has impressed Nickerson is her ability to bounce back. In the final series game against Henley, Lease, although giving up eight runs, only one run was earned against the lethal Hornet lineup.
Since taking over, the Vikings are 6-5. Lease has helped keep the team afloat and enter the final weekend of the season with a chance for a return trip to the postseason.
In a game that the Vikings needed to keep its postseason hopes alive, Lease stymied the North Valley lineup Wednesday tossing a complete game, three-hit shutout.
“She throws competitive pitches for us,” Nickerson said. “She doesn’t get too high or too low when things go bad, that’s good. The experience that she and the non-seniors are getting is only going to help us in the future.”