The Cougars ace pitcher Hailey Malakowski is just a sophomore and she is one of several talented young players that should have Lakewood competing deep into the postseason for at least the next couple of seasons.
"We hope that we are building the program back up so that we are competing at a high level for the next couple of years -- or forever, I hope," Lakewood head coach Steve Barker said.
The Cougars head into the opening round of the 2A district 1 tournament on Wednesday with a 14-6 overall record, finishing 13-5 in the Cascade Conference. The Cougars tied with Cedarcrest and Granite Falls for the regular-season championship, they go into the postseason with the No. 2 seed from their league thanks to a preseason draw in case of a three-team tie.
Softball teams that have success in the postseason almost always have a reliable ace pitcher. Malakowski certainly provides that for the Cougars. In the regular season she had a record of 14-5, a 2.92 earned run average and 91 strikeouts.
"Hailey has been a constant for us," Barker said. "We have that pitching now where in previous years we didn't always have that pitching."
Malakowski gave credit to the defense behind her and said they always help pick her up.
"They always have my back on anything and they can help me if I am having a bad day and I can rely on them," she said.
She helped herself at the plate as well, finishing with a .316 average, 26 RBI and five home runs, tied for the team lead with Kiana Smith.
Smith, a junior, leads the team offensively with a .478 average. She has hit over .500 in her two previous seasons and set the school record for home runs as a sophomore with five, which she and Malakowski have matched this season.
Barker said Malakowski's five home runs have all been at key moments in games.
"They don't come in "garbage time," he said. "They are always when the score is tied or close and they give us a lead or break a tie it seems like -- really clutch hits that she gets."
Malakowski said her offensive numbers have improved dramatically from her freshman season.
"Last year I was a little nervous about coming up as a freshman pitcher and not knowing all the girls," she said. "But this year I've gotten to know them very well and I just have so much more confidence in myself."
Lakewood's impressive record didn't come by blowing teams out.
"At the beginning of the season we were winning a lot of one-run games," Barker said. "I think the first time through the league almost every game was a one-run game and I think the only one that wasn't was a game where we were behind and then rallied late to win by more than one. It started off with these one-run victories that sort of built confidence for us."
As the season progressed, multi-run victories became more frequent. The only team the Cougars could never solve was regular-season champion Granite Falls. The Cougars lost all three games to the Tigers.
As important as Malakowski has been, Barker said the defense as a whole has been important to the team's success and will be needed in the postseason.
"The games we have struggled in are the ones where we don't play good defense behind her," he said.
The Cougars will need strong performances in all areas of their game if they are going to advance out of the district tournament. Barker compared it to this year's 4A district 1 baseball tournament, which was won by Lake Stevens, saying that the field is so deep that anyone can win.
"I sort of picture our district tournament being the same way as that," he said. "It's going to be teams that go there and play well. Basically, in those district tournaments if somebody gets someone hot, like a hot pitcher or a hot bat and you play good defense -- you go there and you win two and all of the sudden you are headed to state."
Malakowski said that is the goal.
"I want our team to go to state and make it to the state championship," she said.
The path there begins Wednesday.
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at email@example.com.
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