YAKIMA, Wash. -- At the end of last season, Ellensburg’s fastpitch program had reason for pause. More than one, in fact.
There was, first of all, the jarring way that campaign ended with two losses on the first day of the Class 2A state tournament and five seniors on the way out. It was an exodus of veterans that left coach Dave Kopczynski wondering what prospects there might be this year for a team laden with underclassmen and only one senior in the entire lineup.
And yet, here we are, on the doorstep of the postseason and the Bulldogs are 14-0 and within reach of the CWAC championship.
“It’s above and beyond what we expected,” Kopczynski admitted. “Being so young I didn’t expect us to play at this level, but each week we’ve seen the confidence and belief growing in these kids. They’re obviously enjoying it.”
Especially the lone senior.
“It’s awesome to be the oldest on the team,” said standout catcher/outfielder Mackenzie Hughes. “Last year we had five seniors to look up to, so I came in knowing I had to take a bigger leadership role and be what a senior should be. I don’t see it as any kind of pressure, being the only senior, because we have a lot of juniors who have been on varsity a long time.”
But to be 12-0 in the CWAC, with a pair of nonleague victories over Liberty and Montesano, and a sweep over rival Selah?
“I didn’t anticipate us playing this well, honestly, but we understand our roles and what we’re doing,” added Hughes, who has signed with Western Washington. “Those were some really good seniors we lost, but all of us made massive improvement over the summer.”
Which is why others in the league are not exactly shocked at Ellensburg’s success despite the lack of a senior class. In addition to a solid summer program, the Bulldogs returned all three of their first-team all-leaguers — pitcher Ally Burgess, outfielder Taelor Griffin and Hughes. Moreover, Ellensburg had two of the best freshmen in the league last year in Karly Malcolm and Allie Kopczynski.
Talent has overcome youth at Ellensburg, and a deep lineup has overcome a thin roster. The varsity currently has just 11 players but they are averaging 15 runs a game.
“Of all the year’s I’ve been here, we’re hitting better 1 through 9 than ever,” said Dave Kopczynski. “Most years we were strong 1 through 6, but we’re getting kids stepping up all the way through the lineup. We’ve mixed in more speed and played a little more small ball. All those things require kids to execute and that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Getting through March unbeaten was no real sign of things to come, but the first week of April certainly was. A day after shutting out perennial 1A power Montesano 3-0, Ellensburg rallied in both games to sweep Selah, 10-6 and 8-7. It was not only a sweet feeling after going 0-4 against the Vikings last year, it was like catnip for confidence.
“We struggled against Selah quite a bit last year so we were a little worried going in,” Hughes said. “We were down in both games but we hit well and produced runs to come back. We realized we could come through in those tight situations.”
Showing the depth of Ellensburg’s lineup, it was No. 7 hitter Bri Berge who delivered the walk-off, two-run base hit in the bottom of the seventh inning of the second game.
“In the past, sometimes, when we’d get to the bottom of the lineup with two outs it was time to grab your glove and get ready to go back out,” Hughes said. “But we can produce runs all through this lineup. We know what our job is and what our strengths are.”
Ellensburg has three league doubleheaders remaining in the regular season before the district tournament starts on May 14. The Bulldogs host Grandview on Saturday and then hit the road for trips to Othello and East Valley.
If Kopczynski’s crew has begun to entertain notions of an unbeaten run through the league, a trip to Othello represents a significant challenge. But the coach hasn’t brought it up and doesn’t want his players even talking about it yet.
“We have some kids who played in the 2011 (state) championship game, so that leads them to some high expectations. But we’ve tried to knock that back a little and keep them focused just on the week ahead,” the coach said. “We’ve made an effort to not look at the season as a whole, like we have in the past, but instead slow things down and only look at the next practice and the next game. We’re not looking past anybody. There’s a plan for this week, and next week we’ll get ready for Othello.”
“We’ve done well so far. We’ve worked hard and learned a lot about ourselves,” Hughes added. “But it’s important that we start challenging ourselves to play at a higher level. That’s what you need in the postseason — everybody to step up a level — and that’s what we’re working toward.”
One practice and game at a time.