By Grant Lucas

The Bulletin

PRINEVILLE — The sting of that early-June morning still resonates at Crook County.

The Cowgirls had become the first team from Central Oregon to play for a softball state title since the OSAA began staging softball championships in 1979. Crook County had rallied — twice — in the Class 4A final yet still fell short against top-seeded Henley.

Getting to within view of the mountaintop only to stumble left the Cowgirls with a scar of sorts.

“It was an awesome feeling getting there,” recalls Crook County senior Abby Dalton. “But we got so far, we might as well have gone all the way. It was definitely hard seeing another team get that.”

That 8-6 loss in the state final ignited a fire beneath Crook County. But first-year coach Jeremy Puckett is convinced that while the defeat motivated the Cowgirls to make another postseason run, that game, he says, is now a speck in the rearview mirror.

“I think they’ve left that in the past,” says Puckett, who for eight years has coached the High Desert YellowJackets, a youth team that produced a number of current Crook County players. “I think they’re pretty proud of what they accomplished last season. I think they want to exceed what they’ve already set from last year. What’s motivating them is a team full of a lot of pride, and they want to win a state championship.”

Crook County may have the tools to do just that — and become the first team from Central Oregon to claim an OSAA softball state title.

The Cowgirls, who are 4-2 this season, boast an offensive depth that could haunt opponents. Back for Crook County is Dalton, a first-team all-state outfielder last season, and senior Emma Ackley, who was voted to the all-state third team as a first baseman. Also returning for the Cowgirls are junior Caitlyn Elliott, a second-team all-Tri-Valley Conference catcher, and three players who received all-TVC honorable mention: senior outfielder Jillian Denney, junior infielder Kalyn Martinez and sophomore utility player Ashley Owens.

Added to the mix is junior infielder Berkley Puckett, the coach’s daughter, who at Redmond High last season made the all-Intermountain Conference first team.

“We’re 14 strong,” says Jeremy Puckett, referring to the number of players on the varsity roster. “We can put kids in off the bench that can come in and do things. They know what their role is. They can come in to lay down a bunt, if need be, or come in and hit for power or steal bases. We’re really lucky to have that kind of offense. … And I expect that we’re going to put up a ton of runs this season.”

Crook County features six seniors and returned eight players from last season. “We have really good bats, a great field, and pitchers coming up that have a lot of potential,” says Dalton.

Pitching will be key for the Cowgirls, who graduated TVC pitcher of the year McKuenzie McCormick after she went 18-2 with a sub-1.00 ERA last season. Jeremy Puckett says Crook County will pitch by committee to fill the void, using something of a four-player rotation in Martinez, Berkley Puckett, Brooke Dalton and Emma Lees.

“I feel like this year we have a better shot,” says Ackley, one of five current Cowgirls who have played for the Jeremy Puckett-coached YellowJackets. “I think we can do it. I think we can win state. But we don’t have a lot of pitching this year. It wouldn’t feel like a bust to me. But I do think that we CAN win state.”

A year after claiming the TVC crown and just missing out on a groundbreaking state championship, Crook County is determined to return to the state final and leave as a champion.

“We talk about it all the time,” Abby Dalton says. “We want it bad this year. We got a taste of it last year, and now we want it.”

“If these kids stay focused on the goal, I think it’s definitely possible to win a state championship this season,” adds Jeremy Puckett. “All signs show that these kids are wanting to put the work forward and are all committed to it. I think that we can definitely be standing at the top of the podium this season.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0307, .