Drought over, Lake Stevens softball back in playoffs

LAKE STEVENS — A quick glance at the Wesco 4A North softball standings finds the usual suspects among the contenders. Snohomish, Arlington and Monroe high schools once again are gravitating toward the top of the grid.

But smack in the middle of those traditional powers is an interloper that’s hell-bent on crashing the party.

The Lake Stevens Vikings have emerged from years of wandering the fastpitch wasteland, and Friday they have the opportunity not only to join the party, but to state their case for throwing it.

“I’m excited with how the season is going,” said senior pitcher Sierra Card, who paid her dues during the barren years. “My entire time in high school being on the softball team I hadn’t made districts. But it’s my senior year, we’re going to districts and our team is doing well. It’s very exciting.”

Lake Stevens has spent the past five years eating the rest of the league’s dust. The Vikings finished fifth in the six-team Wesco 4A North each of the past two years. The two years before that Lake Stevens finished eighth and seventh in a nine-team league. The last time the Vikings reached the postseason was 2007.

But Lake Stevens is the shock of Wesco. The Vikings are currently 10-1 in the league and 14-3 overall. They’ve won 11 straight — which is nearly double the total of six wins they managed all of last season — and already have clinched their first postseason berth in six years. As of Tuesday, Lake Stevens was tied with Snohomish for first place in the Wesco 4A North. Friday’s crunch game between the Vikings and Panthers could all but decide the regular-season title.

“It’s really great, so great,” senior left fielder/second baseman Jessica Scruggs said. “People come up to me and say, ‘You play softball? That’s so cool!’ They actually know what our program is now, which is really cool.”

The Vikings returned most of their key contributors from last season, and Lake Stevens is still young with six sophomores among its 13 full-time varsity players. So, improvement was expected this season, but no one, not even the Vikings, anticipated a jump like this.

“I knew it was a matter of time, but at first I wasn’t exactly sure how we’d do because we’re young,” said Lake Stevens coach Adrianne Lartz, whose original goal was just to have a winning season and break the postseason drought. “I knew there would be moments of greatness, but it’s been more than I anticipated.”

So what’s awakened the slumbering Vikings?

The main reason for Lake Stevens’ surge has been an explosion on offense. Last year, the Vikings batted a modest .273 as a team and averaged 4.8 runs per game. This year, the Vikings have a scorching .404 team batting average and have crossed the plate an average of 8.6 times per contest.

Leading the way has been the first four batters in Lake Stevens’ lineup: sophomore Cassidy Fifield (batting .446), Scruggs (.446), junior Rayne Sylvester (.404) and sophomore Amie Browder (.440 with 12 extra-base hits). Junior Emily Schollenberger (.450) adds versatility further down the lineup. But the offense has improved across the board.

“That’s a good question,” Lartz said when asked why the Vikings have hit so much better. “We have a lot of natural hitters, we have more versatile hitters, people who can bunt and slap, and just good contact hitters. One to nine in our batting order are all hitting, so we don’t really have a weakness in it.”

The improved offense gives the Vikings a complement for Card, who’s continued her solid pitching by going 10-2 with a 2.38 earned run average and 89 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings. Lake Stevens also credited improved team chemistry for playing a role in the turnaround.

But despite the improvement, Lake Stevens found itself in familiar territory early in the season, going 3-3 in its first six games. However, there were signs of what was to come. On March 19 the Vikings traveled to Wesco 4A South perennial power Jackson and led the entire way before falling 7-6 with two out in the bottom of the seventh. Then on April 2 the Vikings went to defending Wesco 4A North regular season champion Arlington and prevailed 6-2. The Jackson game made the Vikings think they belonged among the contenders. After the Arlington game they knew it, and Lake Stevens hasn’t lost since.

“(The Arlington victory) mattered a ton,” Schollenberger said. “Everyone after that, we just got very pumped and motivated. We had a great attitude: confident but not cocky.”

As a result, Lake Stevens’ goals have adjusted since the beginning of the season. Now that the Vikings are back in the postseason, they’re setting their sights higher.

“Now we’re setting our sights on making state,” Lartz said. “We know districts are going to be hard. With Jackson, Cascade, Arlington, Snohomish, Monroe and us, and only three that can go, it’s going to be a battle. We’re still going to take it game by game, but it’s in our sights.”

And the Vikings are thrilled that after years of waiting, they once again can aim that high.

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