The Jackson High School softball team is in a highly unique situation.
The Timberwolves’ powerhouse program captured back-to-back Class 4A state titles in 2018 and 2019, prior to the 2020 and 2021 postseasons being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, Jackson enters this week’s 4A state tournament in Spokane as the two-time reigning state champs. The Timberwolves have a chance to make state history as the first program to win three consecutive 4A softball state titles.
However, this year’s young and talented Jackson team features an entirely different cast of players than those back-to-back state championship squads.
When the Timberwolves last hoisted the championship trophy back in 2019, the majority of their current starting lineup was in sixth or seventh grade.
“I know that people say we’re looking to get number three,” Jackson coach Kyle Peacocke said. “But the way we kind of look at it with this group is that it’s really their opportunity to create their own legacy and name — because after a two-year break, they’re really starting their own thing.
“And obviously, they are really happy to keep up the tradition. … But I just think they’re excited to kind of get their opportunity and try to go give it their best shot to win a title.”
This year’s Timberwolves have already made a name for themselves.
Jackson is in the midst of another success-filled season, sporting a 22-2 record that includes a 6.8 average run differential and eight victories over 4A or 3A state tournament teams.
The Timberwolves went 7-1 in league play to claim the outright Wesco 4A title — a feat that wasn’t even accomplished by their 2018 and 2019 state championship teams, who both finished with shared league titles.
And with their strong resume, the Timberwolves earned the No. 2 seed for the 4A state tournament Friday and Saturday at Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in Spokane.
Perhaps most impressive? They’ve done it all with a youth-laden starting lineup comprised of one freshman, four sophomores, two juniors and only one senior.
“We have a really, really young nucleus of players,” Peacocke said. “There’s a lot of history of success at Jackson, and I think a little bit of pressure on the team to kind of keep up with things.
“But they’ve really just handled themselves beautifully and matured and worked hard and just really had a great season.”
Once again, the Timberwolves feature an ace in the circle.
Hard-throwing sophomore Yanina Sherwood has dominated opposing hitters for most of the season, posting a mere 1.22 earned-run average in 120.2 innings pitched. The right-hander has totaled 175 strikeouts and just 28 walks, punching out 37% of the batters she’s faced while limiting opponents to just a .163 batting average.
Sherwood is following in the footsteps of two recent Jackson aces who went on to pitch at the Division I college level: Sophie Frost (Cal State Fullerton) and Iyanla De Jesus (Coastal Carolina University).
“She’s a power pitcher,” Peacocke said. “She has really good spin and movement on her curveball and on her screw ball. And she’s really worked to develop a good rise ball. And her (changeup) is coming along. … She’s just really been tremendous for us for her first couple years here.”
But unlike recent years when the Timberwolves primarily rode one pitcher all season — Frost from 2013 through 2016, and De Jesus from 2017 through 2019 — a two-pitcher tandem has emerged for Jackson this spring.
As they faced opponents for a second time during the latter half of league play, the Timberwolves began using freshman right-hander Allie Thomsen as a change-of-pace reliever to complement Sherwood in late-game situations.
Thomsen has been highly effective in that role, using a nasty changeup to fluster hitters. She’s logged a 1.50 ERA in 37.1 innings, with 44 strikeouts and just seven walks.
“The incredible part about it is her arm speed does not slow down when she throws that changeup,” Peacocke said. “… And she throws hard enough with her fastball and curveball. So when you add in that changeup and the arm speed looks exactly the same, it’s pretty darn difficult for the hitter.”
With the one-two punch of Sherwood and Thomsen leading the way, Jackson has allowed just 1.8 runs per game.
“They’re two completely different pitchers that just complement each other really well,” Peacocke said. “… We’ve used both of them in big moments, and it’s been effective.”
Behind them, Sherwood and Thomsen are surrounded by a reliable defense that owns a .960 fielding percentage and has committed just 27 errors in 24 games.
“When you know your defense is there behind you, it honestly makes everything so much easier,” Sherwood said. “I can (pitch) a ball and I know that they’ll make a play for me.”
At the plate, the Timberwolves’ deep and talented lineup averages 8.5 runs per game. Jackson is batting .346 as a team, with 33 home runs and 95 extra-base hits.
The Timberwolves have seven starters hitting above .300: Sophomore Hailey Pelletier (.434), Thomsen (.390), senior Kalia Zellmer (.386), junior Macie Dean (.364), junior Simone Williams (.350), sophomore Leneyah Mitchell (.329) and sophomore Rachel Sysum (.317).
And they have nine different players who have homered, including six with multiple home runs. Thomsen has blasted a team-high 10 homers, while Sysum and Sherwood have added six apiece.
“It’s so much fun,” Zellmer said. “Having such a strong lineup from the top all the way to the bottom, it always keeps the energy up. We trust everyone and we have confidence in every single one of us, no matter where we are in the lineup.”
When they were younger, a large chunk of Jackson’s team was part of Mill Creek Little League’s run of state championships and West Region Tournament appearances in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
Some of the Timberwolves’ older players were on those 2016 and 2017 teams. And some of their younger players — including Sherwood, Thomsen and Mitchell — were part of the 2019 team.
“These kids had a chance to play together in big, meaningful games at a young age,” Peacocke said. “And I think that just really sets them up to play together back at the high school level.”
Jackson went 10-3 during last year’s abbreviated season, which served as a stepping stone for a talented incoming freshman class.
“We kind of used last year’s COVID-shortened season as a way of bridging the gap between the past and the present,” Peacocke said. “And we had enough kids on last year’s team that had been a part of the 2019 team to kind of impart wisdom … on the incoming kids.”
This year, the Timberwolves started a perfect 16-0. They outscored their first 16 opponents by a combined 156-16 margin, including a slew of wins over eventual state tournament teams — 4A No. 8 seed Redmond, 3A No. 2 Lake Washington, 3A No. 3 Roosevelt, 3A No. 5 Bonney Lake, 3A No. 8 Yelm, 3A No. 10 Arlington, 3A No. 16 Marysville Getchell and 2A No. 2 Shadle Park.
Jackson didn’t lose until early May, when it suffered a 7-0 defeat to league rival Lake Stevens.
“It was an opportunity to kind of refocus,” Peacocke said. “You kind of understand what that feeling is to lose, and so you have kind of a renewed sense of focus moving forward.”
The Timberwolves’ only other loss was a 3-2 10-inning heartbreaker to Skyline in last Wednesday’s 4A District 1/2 Tournament semifinals. But they rebounded in a major way two days later, routing Lake Stevens to clinch a state berth and then beating Redmond to pocket another signature victory.
“I’m really proud of them, because we had struggled offensively against Lake Stevens (in the first loss),” Peacocke said. “And they came out ready to play and just played an outstanding game. And then we turned around and played really well against Redmond as well.”
Jackson hopes to carry that momentum into this weekend, as this new group of Timberwolves looks to leave its own mark at state.
“We’ve really just been trying to have a lot of fun and take it one game at a time, which has really gotten us to where we are now,” Zellmer said. “So we’re just really excited.
“We do talk about (chasing the three-peat) sometimes,” she added. “But I think we’re really just trying to (create) a new legacy.”