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Steve Christilaw: Class 4A fastpitch tourney impressive

A state tournament is supposed to be a final sprint to the finish line. Never a straight line, of course – there always are hurdles to overcome and battles to be won along the way.

This year’s State 4A fastpitch tournament was something different. And because it was different, you saw something special from teams that reached the finish line long after the sun set on Saturday night.

For the team that wins the state title, the tournament is a four-game charge to the finish line. Under ideal circumstances, it’s 28 innings spread over two days under sunny skies in friendly Spokane.

Most years, it’s exactly that.

This time, it all changed on Friday morning, day one of the tournament.

As the first slate of four 10 a.m. games was coming to an end, the skies opened up and rain came down in sheets. A hard rain with a heavy volume of water came down so fast that it quickly overwhelmed the storm drains at the center of the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex. The building housing the concession stand, tournament headquarters and, more importantly, the restrooms, quickly developed an inches-deep moat.

By noon, tournament director Ken Van Sickle, the University High School athletic director, was advising teams to go back to their hotel. The head groundskeeper was telling him that if the rain stopped right then and there, it would take at least two full hours to make the five fields playable.

Of course, the rain never really let up.

That turned a two-day sprint to the finish into a one-day softball marathon.

“We had a meeting (Friday) night and we discussed what we would need to do,” Kyle Peacocke, the coach of defending state champion Jackson, said. “We talked about playing each game one pitch at a time and playing with excitement and with enthusiasm.”

Jackson was lucky. The Timberwolves started at 8 a.m. and by 10 p.m., they had won four straight games to defend their title.

Behind the best pitcher in the state, Iyanla DeJesus, Jackson allowed more than two runs to an opponent just once in four games, and that was in its extra-inning opener against Camas.

“I’ve played four games in one day before,” DeJesus said after a 16-2 thrashing of Lake Stevens in the title game. “But I have never pitched four games in one day before. I think adrenalin kicked in in the last game. It just hit me a couple minutes ago that that’s just what I did.”

DeJesus was impressive in the pitching circle, throwing a fastball that frequently touches 70 miles per hour and is all-but unhittable. But she was just as impressive on offense, drawing two intentional walks in the title game – including one with the bases loaded to send home a run and the other to load the bases during a seven-run inning.

From the first pitch of the day, DeJesus was determined to put her teammates on her back and carry them home to another championship. She was no doubt exhausted and, minutes after the Timberwolves were presented with the trophy, her shoulders slumped and her arms became impossibly heavy. But the smile never left her face.

“You just do what you have to do,” she said. “All year long my teammates have given me a great offense to work behind and they don’t get the credit they deserve. Once we took the lead, I knew we were going to win.”

Indeed, once Jackson got the lead in the third inning, DeJesus looked refreshed and recharged – not only mowing down Vikings inning after inning but leading the team’s cheering section.

It was a display of grit and determination by a player who already had a state title under her belt, a full-ride scholarship to play at Coastal Carolina (yes, she will be a Chanticleer) and a state player-of-the-year award from the Seattle Times.

She just refused to let her teammates down.

Battle Ground, on the other hand, had a tougher task.

The Tigers, who travel to Spokane from southwest Washington, lost their first game and had to take a longer road through the consolation bracket.

Battle Ground battled all day long, game after game. When the day started, after taking that opening loss, the Tigers knew they had their work cut out for them. To bring home a state trophy they would need to win four straight games and play in another.

Fortunately, the tournament opted to cancel the trophy game and instead awarded two third-place trophies to the winners of the consolation bracket semifinals.

The Tigers played five times on Saturday, losing to Redmond, 3-1, in the final game to head home without a trophy – although to be fair, when the tournament decided to award two third-place trophies, it would be fair to have also handed out two for a fourth place.

The Tigers put on a display of toughness that was impressive to watch. There were no complaints. Not once did a player put her hands on her knees and hang her head in exhaustion.

They just kept finding a way to win and advance and had their chances to beat the Mustangs at the end – loading the bases with one out in the sixth. But two hard-hit balls found their way into a Redmond glove, and they were denied a final comeback.

What you had to admire over the course of the day was the way Battle Ground pitcher Mallory Meyer kept her team in games.

The only pitcher the Tigers used, the red-headed sophomore commanded the strike zone. As the day wore on, she didn’t seem to tire, and her pitches gained more movement. Her riser seemed to just miss the sweet spot of opponent bats, and her change slowed just enough to miss them altogether.

“It’s tough when you lose your first game and have to play more games,” Battle Ground coach Arielle Wiser said. “I was so impressed with the way Mallory kept firing. She just competed hard.”

In the end, it was much like watching the finish line at a marathon, where exhaustion reigns but the sense of accomplishment lifts everyone up.

It was an impressive display.