SANDPOINT — When the Bulldogs take the field this morning at the 4A state softball tournament in Post Falls, they will be facing teams with nearly twice as many games on their record, which can either be a good thing or a bad thing.
The Bulldogs (11-3) had the bulk of their season rained out, which cost them playing time, which cost them a lot of opportunity to improve. They’ll open their second straight state tournament against Blackfoot (15-9), the No. 2 seed from District 5-6, which fell twice to top seed Pocatello (23-4) in their district tournament.
A quick glance at the aforementioned records reveals a lot, and Bulldog head coach Elizabeth Hawkins-Williams sees some good and bad from the shortened season.
“A lack of game experience, a lack of at-bats. My starters barely have 30 at-bats,” she said, noting six returning varsity starters help offset the missed games. “My players aren’t tired, they’re fresh. This would be the middle of the season and we’re peaking. There’s a lot of energy right now, they’re excited to play.”
The Bulldogs will hand the ball to their ace, hard-throwing junior lefty Bri Baldree, who features a lot of movement on her pitches and sports a tidy 9-1 record on the season.
She struggled early in the district win over Lakeland, before returning to close things out, but features the kind of stuff that can dominate a lineup at times. Hawkins-Williams says the key for her ace is to work ahead in the count and settle into the game.
“Finding the strike zone. She has a lot of speed and movement,” said the coach, noting her defense averages just two errors a game. “Trust the defense behind her. Defense is what we live by.”
All great defenses start up the middle, and senior catcher Sam Holland, sophomore shortstop Bri Baldree and junior second baseman Kaitlan Ward are all top notch defenders, and figure to see a lot of action this weekend.
Offensively, Ward has flashed some home run power, Holland and Baldree produce a lot of extra base hits and Bri Barlow sets the table with speed atop the order.
But it’s the depth of the batting order and bench that is key to executing the coach’s game plan.
“We have a plan. Sac bunts, drag bunts, move runners, protect runners, hit behind runners,” explained Hawkins-Williams. “Our pinch hitters understand their role, they’re ready. We’re very patient, we see a lot of pitches.”
The Broncos from south-eastern Idaho feature an ace who has signed to pitch at College of Southern Idaho, and a lineup that features some pop, including hitting eight home runs in a doubleheader this season against a 5A opponent.
They’re coached by Mike Torgerson, a four-time league coach of the year with 33 years experience coaching baseball and softball, so the Broncos figure to be prepared.
One of the great things about state tournaments is the chance to see how teams that know next to nothing about each other match up under the pressure of state. Last year Sandpoint was a strike away from a win against Twin Falls, yet Hawkins-Williams doesn’t think a lot of teams from the south give any respect to the North teams each year.
“I don’t think anybody will take us seriously,” she predicted, which is fine by her squad. “The girls are excited and confident, and that’s huge. They need to feel good to play good.”
First pitch is 9 a.m. today at Post Falls High School. The winner plays at 3 p.m., while the loser-plays a consolation game at 1 p.m.