EVERETT — The defending state champions are headed back to Spokane for a chance to defend their crown.
Iyanla De Jesus tossed a four-hitter as the Jackson softball team clinched its fifth consecutive state berth with a 5-3 win over Lake Stevens in a Class 4A Wes-King Bi-District Tournament semifinal Wednesday evening at Phil Johnson Ballfields.
“There’s been a lot of pressure on the kids this year being defending state champions,” Timberwolves coach Kyle Peacocke said. “We lost a couple games in the first half of the season and just kind of (got) things together. And to get that opportunity to go back there and try to defend your title is just everything that we wanted.”
Lake Stevens dropped to the bi-district loser’s bracket with the loss. The Vikings (17-4) will face Bothell in a winner-to-state, non-elimination contest Friday.
Since losing to Wesco 4A rivals Glacier Peak and Lake Stevens during the first part of conference play, Jackson has rattled off a 12-game win streak — including a pair of victories over the Vikings.
“Glacier Peak and Lake Stevens are good teams, but at the same time, the kids were a little bit frustrated, and they had to learn to come together as a team and play together,” Peacocke said. “A lot of the kids are back from last year, but with injuries and kids in different positions, it’s a totally different team.
“So they just really had to figure themselves out as a group, and they kind of came together and recommitted themselves to each other and have been determined the second half of the season.”
De Jesus (formerly Pennington) shook off a leadoff first-inning home run and didn’t allow another hit until the seventh. The hard-throwing Jackson ace and Coastal Carolina University-bound senior struck out 15 batters and walked four.
“She just beared down,” Peacocke said. “She’s been through the fire. She’s been there. She understands that things are going to happen, and she didn’t let it faze her. As a matter of fact, I think she got tougher.”
De Jesus retired a string of 14 consecutive batters, including a stretch where she struck out 10 of 12.
“She’s one of a kind,” Peacocke said. “Honestly, I’ve never seen anything like it before. Her will and her desire, it’s just unmatched.”
Kaylie Hoskins and Samantha Long combined to pitch a four-hitter for Lake Stevens, but the Vikings’ duo was undone by a combined 13 walks.
Five of those walks were intentional passes to De Jesus, who entered the game batting .643 with 10 home runs, three triples and eight doubles. Lake Stevens even elected to surrender a run by intentionally walking her with the bases loaded, rather than let the fearsome two-way Jackson star swing the bat.
De Jesus has been intentionally walked in all 12 of her plate appearances during the Timberwolves’ three bi-district games, prompting Peacocke to move her to the leadoff spot to take full advantage of the free passes.
“She hasn’t been allowed to swing a bat the entire postseason,” Peacocke said. “It’s the ultimate sign of respect, (but) at the same time, it is frustrating. … It’s put some pressure on our team, but I think the team has kind of rallied around that and rose to the occasion.”
Rachael Eichenberger crushed a leadoff home run over the left-center field fence in the bottom of the first, giving Lake Stevens an early 1-0 lead. It was Eichenberger’s second first-inning homer off De Jesus this season.
Jackson pulled in front with a pair of runs in the fourth. Laina Delgado clobbered a game-tying solo homer to center field and Jillian Hampson drew a bases-loaded walk to give the Timberwolves a 2-1 lead.
It was the first home run of the season for Delgado, who Peacocke said missed a handful of games while competing in both the DECA and Technology Students Association state competitions.
“That was absolutely huge,” Peacocke said. “That was the catalyst. We had really struggled against Hoskins this year. She’s really done a good job against our hitters, and we were really struggling the first couple of innings.
“Laina’s big home run was a huge spark for the team. I think you saw our energy go up and you saw the quality of our at-bats improve throughout the rest of the game after that.”
Jackson extended its lead with a pair of fifth-inning runs on a single and four walks, including a bases-loaded intentional pass to De Jesus that made it 4-1.
The Timberwolves added another run in the seventh after Jessica Asantor tripled off the right-field fence and scored on Sam Klotter’s scorching line-drive double into the left-center field gap.
Lake Stevens mounted a two-out rally in the bottom of the seventh, plating a pair of runs and bringing the tying run to the plate. But De Jesus blew a high fastball past the final batter for a game-ending strikeout to seal the state-clinching victory and send Jackson’s players into a frenzied celebration.
“When she gets in tough situations,” Peacocke said, “she has the ability to just take it to a whole another level.”