It’s just a plain, old, ordinary Tuesday at the Henley softball field.
The outfielders are chasing down fly balls, the infielders takings grounders, the team works through situational hitting and baserunning.
Just another day at the ball field.
The practice may be ordinary, but the game they are preparing for is far from it.
Saturday, at Jan Sanders Stadium in Eugene, the Henley softball team will play in its third state title game, with a chance for revenge against La Grande, a team that beat the Hornets 6-1 in the finals last year to end Henley’s chance at a repeat title.
It’s hard to tell if the players are aware of what’s a stake. A win will give Henley its second title in three years — a feat that that hasn’t been accomplished in school history.
The players are loose, chatting about the mock interviews and awkward encounters in the hallway during school earlier that day, and about how they prefer to hit pitches that are thrown down the middle rather than pitches being thrown to the edges of the plate.
Assistant coach Brian Stock then brings the girls together for a quick chat on what Saturday is going to look like. No one is talking, no one is looking off into the distance.
Stock relays the gameplan to the group of girls. How the goal is to be competitive the plate, how baserunners are going to be at a premium and not be afraid to wear a pitch to get on base.
They are locked in.
“They have confidence,” said head coach Bobby Mick, who will be coaching in his fourth state title game Saturday. “You hear people say all the time that ‘you need to be confident’ but we believe and we preach that confidence is a result of hard work.”
Confidence is one thing, talent and hard work are another. What makes this Hornet team click is a group of 15 girls that get “it”.
“It” is a basket full of notebooks filled with daily, individuals goals to help the team improve that the players jot down after each practice.
“It” is Kelsey Juhl, a JV player who volunteered to practice with the team during the playoffs, catching for pitcher’s bullpen sessions even though she won’t sniff the field Saturday.
“It” is a group message serving as an itinerary laying out how the night before a game should go — when to do homework, when to go to bed and when to turn off the cell phone — to be properly focused the next day.
“It” is finding ways to improve even when your team is routinely blowing teams out.
“It truly means more to these girls to play to their best and to push each other, to have a team that succeeds and can go deep into the playoffs year after year,” Mick said.
Talent helps too. This year, Henley proved to have the horses to make another run.
Paige Barnett brings pop and speed on the basepaths at the top of the order; Kylie Melsness who has a tenacious ability to find a way on base from the two spot. Which sets the table for power hitters Kaila Mick and Maddie Perez who have driven in 121 runs between the two.
Carli Moore and Jessica Northcutt are a constant threat for extra bases, Northcutt leads the team with six homers. Rounded out with a pair of defensive stoppers in Taylor Chavez and Beth Hamilton.
“I like how we are put together,” Mick said. “A lot of teams don’t have the threats at the bottom of the order, quite honestly on other teams, they are top of the lineup players.”
The current success that Henley softball is having isn’t out of the ordinary. Since 2008, the Hornets have made it to six state title games, Saturday will be their seventh. But not Henley team before has made three title games in as many years.
“It” didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a steady climb that’s been years in the making.
The come up
Winning was never the top priority when Mick began coaching softball when the senior class was seven years old or when coached the juniors and sophomores as preteens.
The focus was on developing skills at a young age and keeping the girls involved with the sport so when they reached the high school level, those skills would blossom and the teams would contending for championships.
“There are things that you can do when you are younger that doesn’t translate to success later on,” the head coach said. “That’s something that our youth program has tried to balance between competing and teaching the game to where they can have that opportunity when they are older.”
The team that will take the field Saturday wasn’t the same team that has rolled through the opposition the past three years. Even the top players now weren’t the top players growing up.
“The funny things is we weren’t the best players,” Kaila Mick said. “We were late bloomers.”
Mick was a runt growing up, standing a head shorter than Lilly Poe. It took her until the seventh grade to finally settle into batting left handed. The unanimous Player of the Year in the Skyline Conference wasn’t a mainstay at shortstop like she is now, her arm wasn’t yet strong enough to make that long of a throw to first.
Growing up, Poe went a full season riding the bench.
“The whole year,” she recalled, “I don’t think I played.”
That led to daily sessions in the batting cages, throwing into nets in basements when no one was around.
“That’s something that I tell our own pitchers is most kids don’t know what goes into becoming the type of pitcher that she is,” Bobby Mick said. “Developing pitches it’s literally hours and hours, days and days of pitching.”
Along with being two of the best players in the state, both will continue playing in college.
“It’s good to pass up those kids that you sat behind, we were not the studs of the team,” Kaila Mick said. “It’s crazy how much our hard work has changed things for us.
Get ‘it’ moment
Poe’s moment came as a freshman in the state quarterfinals against Gladstone. With the bases juiced with Gladstone runners, Poe walked home the winning run. The Hornets lost 1-0.
“It clicked in my head, that was the game that I got it, quarterfinals against Gladstone,” she said.
Mick’s came the following season when the team beat La Grande 1-0 in the semifinals to advance to the state title game — the first of three times for Poe and Mick.
“The celebration in the middle is so addicting and Lilly and I have felt it three times now and you just want that every single time,” Mick said.
The addiction to winning has created a rare competitive environment within the program.
“It’s not everywhere where you have to compete for a spot to play varsity softball, especially at the 4A level and just high school in general,” Bobby Mick said. “I feel that is something that these girls have. That makes them better, it makes the girl they are competing with better.”
Aside from the freshmen on the roster — Malia Mick, Beth Hamilton and Maddie Moore — all but one team member has been in the Henley program, all except Alex Sharp.
Now a junior, Sharp spent her previous two years in the Bonanza program — a successful Class 2A program — she got a wakeup call with the increased level of competition.
“I knew it was going to be challenging and I knew that I was going to work for a spot,” Sharp said.
That’s where Henley’s culture took over.
Early on, Sharp, coming off a knee injury that kept her out of her sophomore year, struggled to keep up. Her swing needed adjustments. She was off balance, her stance was too wide and she struggled to keep her hands back.
During practice, Mick partnered Sharp with the team’s top hitter during hitting drills — his daughter. Together they retooled her swing. The stance was narrowed, the hand path was shorter and the balance was improved — all things that Mick had been coached up when she was younger.
“I feel like it would have been difficult in any other situation,” Sharp said. “But I’ve seen Kaila hit and she knew what she was doing and when she helped me she fixed me right away and I could feel the difference.”
Soon Sharp was in the starting line up and ended the year as an All-Conference Second-Teamer as an outfielder with a batting average above .300.
“I get genuinely more excited when she gets a hit than when I get a hit,” Kaila Mick said.
All the steps this Henley team has made over the years will manifest itself in Eugene at 5 p.m. when the Hornets and Tiger square off for the third time in three years in the playoffs.
Why do the Hornets like their chances? They have “it”
“It’s all those little things that are hard to quantify,” Mick said. “But is part of the culture.”