By Ben Bagley
As the new season awaits, second-year head coach Sheryl Gilmore and the Viking softball team have their eyes on the prize.
The team tied for fourth in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference last season and just missed out on a trip to the GNAC Championship Tournament. With an eye towards redemption, both players and coaches have high hopes for the upcoming year.
According to the 2020 GNAC preseason coaches poll released on Jan. 22, the Vikings were selected to finish the season in second place behind Western Oregon University.
“I think we are going to surprise a lot of teams this year. We’ll have the jaw-dropping effect for sure,” senior center fielder Jackie Lucido said.
Of the players returning from the 2019 season, Lucido is second on the team with 23 RBIs and 5 home runs. Lucido will be anchoring the outfield alongside juniors Lauren Lo and Sierra Tibbetts.
Gilmore is optimistic to start the year, but said she values small goals over big ones. She said that doing the little things right off the field creates champions on it.
“We focus more on building the right habits,” Gilmore said. “Every week we focus on something a little bit different.”
Those habits include instilling the values of selflessness, energy and excellence, Gilmore said.
“We have dedication days where we talk about what a championship team looks like, and what discipline looks like,” Lucido said. “We are really dedicated in that sense and the coaches let us grow in that regard.”
Assisting Gilmore this season will be a trio of former players: Carlie Richards, Shearyna Labasan and Emily Benson. Benson, who holds the Western career record in nearly every offensive category, was the 2019 GNAC player of the year. This will be Labasan and Benson’s first year on the coaching staff, as they both played last season.
“They’ve blown my expectations out of the water,” Gilmore said. “You expect there to be growing pains, but they have stepped right up and I feel very lucky to have those guys.”
The coaches’ experiences on the field have helped them gain the respect and trust of the team.
“It’s nice having them know the program and knowing what we go through,” senior designated player Paityn Cyr said. “They have the knowledge and it always feels like we can go to them for anything.”
Cyr leads the returning players with 6 home runs, 32 RBIs and a .370 batting average last season.
A challenge facing this year’s team is replacing a record-setting group of seniors from 2019. Labasan and Benson were both in that group, as well as Cylie Richards and Makinlee Sellevold. The group left their mark on the Western career record books in a big way, holding a top-5 all-time ranking in a combined 42 statistical categories.
This year, the focus for the team isn’t on replacing the all-time greats, it’s on what this year’s team can bring to the table, Lucido said.
“It’s hard to replace every single one individually,” Lucido said. “Our team is a powerhouse, but in a different way. We have more variety in the type of players we have.”
Gilmore explained that instead of having just a few outstanding players in the middle of the lineup, this year’s team will be much more balanced across the roster.
Part of that balance is due to the eight new players joining the team this year. Highlighting the 2020 recruiting class is freshman pitcher and two-time Oregon 5A player of the year Kaelynn Simmons, along with transfers Tatum Dow, Dakota Brooks and Megan Marino.
A key change for the Vikings will be their pitching staff. Last season, either Sellevold or Labasan earned the decision in 43 of the team’s 45 games played. This year, Labasan’s bullpen plans for a more balanced approach.
“This year, what we envision is more pitching by committee,” Gilmore said. “We want to have a pitching staff and use our four pitchers strategically because they all bring something different.”
Boosting the pitching staff will be the return of junior Anna Kasner. The highly decorated junior will be back on the mound after she missed last season. She ranks seventh all-time in Western history with 290 career strikeouts.
Above all else, Gilmore preaches the value of selflessness to her team. In her quest to lead them to a GNAC title and beyond, one thing she instills in her players is the importance of putting the team’s success above individual success.
“If you get rings,” Gilmore said, “everybody’s ring is the same size.”
The Vikings will look to earn those rings come spring, with the season officially beginning on Friday, Jan. 31 with the Concordia Kickoff Classic in Irvine, California.
The Vikings begin the five-game tournament with a double-header against California State University San Marcos at 12:30 p.m. and Chico State University at 6:00 p.m.