Crook County’s softball team is focused on one goal: Winning a state title
After defeat in 2017 final, the Cowgirls are poised for another deep run into the playoffs
Seniors Emma Ackley, left, and Abby Dalton return to lead the Cowgirls softball team this season. They are pictured on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at Crook County High School. (Joe Kline/Bulletin photo) - Bulletin
Seniors Emma Ackley, left, and Abby Dalton return to lead the Cowgirls softball team this season. They are pictured on Tuesday, March 20, 2018, at Crook County High School. (Joe Kline/Bulletin photo)
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.”
2017: 18-9 overall, 11-5 IMC (2nd); lost in play-in round
Outlook: A new pitching staff and a lack of depth have the Lava Bears relying heavily on their returning players this season. Bend’s ace last season, Audrey Nelson, decided not to play this year, according to Kinkade, and 2017 IMC newcomer of the year Allicitie Frost has transferred to Ridgeview. Returning for the Bears, however, are second-team all-conference players Maya Eliff, Jasmine Nocerino and Erin Conrad. Also back for Bend (2-2-1) is Emma Mone, who received IMC honorable mention last season. “We have a great culture going early this year,” Kinkade says, “and will look to ride that to success.”
Coach: Kate Hunter (1st season)
2017: 13-14 overall, 10-6 IMC (3rd); lost in play-in round
Outlook: For the first time since 2011-2012, Mountain View last year finished above .500 in IMC play for a second consecutive season. And in an increasingly competitive conference, that is nothing to scoff at. Two years removed from taking second in the IMC and appearing in the state playoffs, the Cougars (1-1) return reigning conference pitcher of the year Kayla Berg, a senior who was named third-team all-state last season, and IMC honorable mention first baseman Skylar Garcia. Led by that duo, Mountain View, despite graduating two all-state players, looks to again contend for an IMC title.
Coach: Mike Durre (3rd season)
2017: 6-17 overall, 4-12 IMC (4th)
Outlook: Scoring runs last season was not too difficult for the Panthers, who averaged more than six runs per game to rank third in the IMC. Preventing opponents from scoring was a different story, as Redmond gave up 251 runs (nearly 11 per game) to tie for the fourth-most allowed in 5A. The Panthers (1-3) return first-team all-IMC third baseman Kiki Fierstos and second-team first baseman Jinya Glenn — as well as honorable mention players Ondriah Oyloe, an infielder, and Audrey McKenzie, an infielder — as Redmond seeks to get back to the postseason for the first time since reaching the state quarterfinals in 2013.
Coach: Sandy Fischer (6th season)
2017: 23-4 overall, 14-2 IMC (1st); lost in state quarterfinals
Outlook: Since 2015, Ridgeview has been a perennial IMC power, winning three straight league titles while amassing 65-13 overall and 44-4 IMC records. Though the Ravens graduated five all-state players from last year’s team that produced the second-most runs (298) in 5A, they return several experienced players who will lead an otherwise young Ridgeview roster. Back for the Ravens is second-team all-state pitcher Natalie Hill, who was also a first-team all-IMC utility player. Also returning for Ridgeview (1-1) are second-team all-conference players Ashley Merritt, Taylor Smith and Aryana Foster, and new to the squad is transfer Allicitie Frost, the IMC newcomer of the year at Bend High last season. “The potential is certainly there,” Fischer says. “The question is how quick can we jell together? We have more new players than old. … We’re young, but they’ve had good instruction. They’re talented.”
Coach: Mike Carpenter (6th season)
2017: 2-19 overall, 1-15 IMC (5th)
Outlook: Since the program’s last appearance in the state playoffs in 2012, Summit has gone just 13-59 in the IMC and 28-88 overall. Last year the Storm scored the fourth-fewest runs (77) in 5A while tying for the fourth-most (251) runs allowed. The future could be bright, however, as Summit (0-1) returns four all-IMC players in second-team infielders Molly Wasserman and Tiana Waller, second-team pitcher Hailey Nelson, and honorable mention first baseman Amanda Mellor. Those four, Carpenter says, “are among the most intelligent players I’ve had in 28 years of coaching softball. We made it to a play-in game two years ago, but lost seven seniors that next year which was a huge blow. The younger kids in that group (Wasserman, Nelson, Waller and Mellor) are now ready to be the leaders in the program and are doing a great job so far.”
Coach: Jeremy Puckett (1st season)
2017: 21-6 overall, 14-1 TVC (1st); lost in state championship
Outlook: Last season, the Cowgirls became the first team from Central Oregon ever to reach the OSAA state championship, only to fall short of the title. With eight players back, including all-state seniors Abby Dalton and Emma Ackley, the Cowgirls (4-2) are poised to make another deep postseason run.
Coach: Shawna McConnell (3rd season)
2017: 11-13 overall, 6-9 TVC (4th)
Outlook: The White Buffaloes are young, McConnell says, but they have experience in significant positions. Pitchers Lizzie Steuart, a junior, and Jiana Smith-Francis, a sophomore, return for Madras after earning second-team all-TVC recognition last year. Second baseman Arysta Pineda, the team’s lone senior, batted over .400 last year. With the addition of strong varsity newcomers, including juniors Genesis Quiroz and Mary Olney, McConnell could see the Buffs (1-2) make a run at a postseason spot. “We always aim to make playoffs, and it’s not out of our reach,” she says. “Even this young, inexperienced team has the potential for the postseason, especially with the drive and willingness to learn that they’ve already shown.”
Coach: Dave Smith (3rd season)
2017: 7-14 overall, 4-11 Sky-Em (5th)
Outlook: Runs came at a premium last season for the Outlaws, whose 78 runs scored were the fourth-fewest in 4A. Sisters, however, has already displayed some offensive punch this season. The team’s 21 runs scored in its season-opening victory over Klamath Union were the second-most by a Sisters team since 2011. Looking to lead the Outlaws (1-4) into Sky-Em contention are Jourdan Andrews, Tatum Sitz, Isabelle Spitler and Anessa Stotts, who led the Outlaws in their 18-hit attack in the first game of the season.
Coach: Matt Montgomery (2nd season)
2017: 10-15 overall, 1-9 MVC (6th)
Outlook: Though they finished last in the MVC for the third straight year, the Hawks showed signs last season of a potential bright future. La Pine (2-0) scored 179 runs for the program’s most since 2014. The most noteworthy improvement, however, was defensively and in the pitching circle, as the Hawks’ 189 runs allowed were the fewest since La Pine gave up 171 in 2010 while playing in 4A. With the Hawks possibly hitting an upswing, they could climb out of the MVC cellar for the first time since dropping to 3A prior to the 2015 season.
Coach: Carly Clark (3rd season)
2017: 1-20 overall, 0-12 SD6 (4th)
Outlook: For the first time in five years, Clark says, the Bulldogs have the numbers the program has been searching for. Eighteen players came out for Culver this season, and at the top are a few returners who look to turn the tide of the program. All-league infielder Madison Miller is back for Culver, which scored the third-fewest runs (83) in 2A/1A last season and allowed the most (399) in the classification. Also back for the Bulldogs (0-4) are outfielders Mia Gamboa and Ryanne Scholl. That trio, Clark says, will shoulder the load for Culver. “We have a new attitude of optimism and opportunity,” Clark says. “The girls here want to play and earn a W. I believe this season with the right attitude and dedication, the girls can compete with all the teams in our conference.”