SNOHOMISH — After the regular season ended for last year’s 4A Wesco North softball teams, it was the Snohomish Panthers who had earned the league championship, finishing one game ahead of Arlington and Lake Stevens.
A little over two weeks later, it was Arlington that hoisted the state-championship trophy after an undefeated postseason where the Eagles allowed just four runs. Arlington was led by senior pitcher Ronnie Ladines, who was dominant after missing nearly half of her senior season with a fractured finger.
“They were a pretty overpowering and dominant group,” Snohomish head coach Lou Kennedy said. “Ronnie gets on the mound and she’s amazing. Last year when she came back, she was as powerful as I’ve ever seen her. It was just hard to match.”
While the Eagles season ended with the highest of highs, Snohomish’s season ended in disappointment.
After losing just two regular season games — both to Arlington — the Panthers fell one win short of the state tournament, falling 5-4 to Newport in a Wesco/Kingco winner-to-state crossover game.
“We did a lot of great things last year,” Kennedy said. “I think our teams has the talent to be really good again. We’ve just got to finish a little better.”
If Arlington’s finish taught the Panthers’ players anything, it’s that they want to be the ones celebrating at the end of the state tournament this season.
“We definitely didn’t make it as far as we wanted to last year,” senior shortstop Jennie Winston said. “The way I would describe it is that we all have a little extra fire in us this year because we want to get where we want to go, which is obviously state.”
While Kennedy said he never likes to feel like one, the Panthers would appear to be the favorite to repeat as league champions. Arlington lost five key players to graduation off of last year’s championship team, including Ladines. On the other hand, the Panthers have just three starting positions to fill — the most difficult of those being outfielder Anna Pisac. Pisac hit .532 with 13 doubles, four triples and four home runs as a senior a year ago.
Replacing Pisac’s emotional leadership could prove just as difficult as replacing her on the field. Kennedy said he will look to his talented group of five seniors take on that role this season.
As for Pisac’s on-the-field impact, Kennedy said that will be a joint-effort as well.
“It’s kind of like Moneyball — pick it up in the aggregate,” Kennedy said, referencing the management approach of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics, which spawned a major motion picture. “I’ve got three people to pick up what Anna did for us. I think we can do it.”
One of those three players is sophomore Alyssa Simons. The utility player is expected to pitch about half of the games for the Panthers, along with senior Bailey Seek.
“She has that dominating pitcher approach,” Kennedy said of Simons. “She’s going to be very, very good.”
Offensively, Kennedy said Simons looks more relaxed at the plate this season as does Winston and Seek, which should help make up for the absence of Pisac.
The Panthers most dangerous offensive weapon is senior Trysten Melhart. The outfielder is the Panthers all-time leader in single-season batting average after batting .754 last season. Melhart set the record as a freshman and has surpassed the mark in her sophomore and junior seasons by nearly 100 percentage points each time.
Kennedy said Melhart improved her skills hitting to the gaps last season, resulting in more doubles and triples. When she does hit singles, she still often finds herself in scoring position because of her outstanding speed, which her teammates and coaches say is without peer.
“That is the biggest luxury for any team to have,” Kennedy said. “Somebody who hits in the 700s, gets on base and steals any time she feels like she’s ready to go.”
Melhart, a University of Washington commit, was caught stealing once last season and Kennedy said it was only because poor field conditions caused her slide to come up short of the base on a throw she would have beaten easily.
Melhart’s skill at the plate and speed make her one of the most dangerous players in the state — and a favorite among her teammates.
“When she gets on base in motivates me personally to try to get a hit or somehow get on base to get her around,” Winston said. “It’s definitely a fire-starter for the team.”
The role of “fire-starter” is something that Melhart has embraced.
“I feel like I have to lead by example and get myself on base because then it fires everyone up,” Melhart said. “It just gets everyone excited and I like to be that person that leads everyone.”
After two consecutive years coming up short in the Wesco/Kingco winner-to-state crossover game, the Panthers appear to have everything it takes to get over the hump — and maybe more.
“The past couple years we’ve come so close, so I think we’re using that for our fire this year,” Seek said. “We’re working that much harder.”
One thing Kennedy doesn’t want his team to do is look ahead. He reference the one-game approach of the Seattle Seahawks and said his team needs to keep that kind of mentality this season.
“We don’t put (a state championship) on our list yet because there is work to be done before we get there,” Kennedy said. “If you start looking too far ahead, you are asking to shoot yourself in the foot at some point because your focus isn’t where it should be.”
And just like the Seahawks, when and if the Panthers get there, Kennedy wants his team to play its best when it counts the most.
“We all know that we have the skills and we have the talent, we just have got to have the run,” he said. “We’ve got to put it together when it matters.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.