Jackson’s Macy Tarbox celebrates after being called safe at third base during an April 24 game in Mill Creek. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Jackson’s Macy Tarbox celebrates after being called safe at third base during an April 24 game in Mill Creek. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Refocused Jackson softball aims to repeat as 4A champion

A team meeting earliler this month allowed the T-wolves to reconnect. They haven’t lost since.

MILL CREEK — When did everything really start to click for Jackson softball this year?

It wasn’t two revenge wins over fellow state competitors, Lake Stevens and Glacier Peak. Nor was it a run through the District 1 tournament.

Rather, it was a meeting in the grass in left field at Jackson High School’s softball field, with all the members of the team sitting with their legs crossed, airing any grievances or feelings the day after the Timberwolves lost two tiebreaker games for seeding in the District 1 tournament, thereby losing a first-round bye.

“We felt like we weren’t really playing as a team,” senior second baseman Jessica Asantor said. “So all the captains and the coaches felt like we should dedicate a practice to just sitting in a circle and everybody says what they feel and what they think. We cleared the air and ever since then we’ve been even more connected with each other, which is really important going into state.”

As a result the Timberwolves, the defending 4A state champions, enter the 2019 tournament Friday at the Dwight Merkel Sports Complex in Spokane as the No. 1 seed out of the bi-district tournament after winning their fifth consecutive district championship.

“Figuring out who we were definitely came late this year,” Kyle Peacocke said. “It definitely came after those two losses to Glacier Peak and Lake Stevens. Winning a state championship is hard work. No matter how good you are, you have to go out there and earn it.

“As a team, they recommitted themselves to having an internal fire and desire. I think you saw a different team during the (bi-)district tournament, we were a completely different team.”

For most teams, two regular-season losses isn’t cause for concern. But the Timberwolves were still trying to recapture their magic from last season. Jackson went on a tear after its second regular-season defeat, a 4-1 loss to Lake Stevens on April 8, rattling off 13 consecutive wins, including a 4-0 performance in the bi-district tournament.

But the pair of losses — to Lake Stevens and Glacier Peak — in which the Timberwolves didn’t record a run in the three-inning tiebreaker games to decide seeding for the bi-district tournament left a sour taste in the Timberwolves’ mouth.

“We just talked about anything and everything that we needed to,” junior Hannah Greninger said. “We cleared the air, we decided what we needed to work on, how we could improve ourselves positively. After that little chat, everything just clicked and we became even more a part of the team.”

The Timberwolves’ run through the bi-district bracket wasn’t without intrigue. Iyanla “Ice” De Jesus was given the Barry Bonds treatment, as she recorded walks in 14 of her 16 plate appearances after teams elected to pitch around and intentionally walk her. De Jesus enters the tournament with a .638 batting average, 21 extra-base hits and 10 homers. Her first official at-bat wasn’t recorded until the bi-district championship game against Eastlake, in which she went 1-for-2 with two walks.

The senior slugger even was walked with the bases loaded by Lake Stevens with the Vikings trailing 3-1 in the fifth.

“Yeah, I understand that they think I’m a great hitter and it’s a form of respect,” De Jesus said, “but in my eyes you’re disrespecting multiple people on this team by not walking any of them. Multiple people on this team have hit home runs and are really good hitters. I don’t really understand why they do it. (Eastlake) pitching to me was smart because I hadn’t hit for like a week off a pitcher. “

De Jesus’ teammates handled the situation well, though. Laina Delgado lifted a home run, her first round-tripper of the season, against Lake Stevens in the semifinals. Macy Tarbox went 3-for-3 with five RBI and a homer in a 9-6 win over Newport in the quarterfinals.

“It was disrespectful for us, but we used it as energy at the end of the year to get us hyped up,” Tarbox said.

De Jesus said she was frustrated with the approach, but she’s also a dominant ace pitcher, with a 0.84 ERA and 263 strikeouts over 116 innings. She sought payback on the mound after all the intentional walks.

“If I’m not going to hit, none of you are going to hit,” she remembered thinking.

It culminated with a no-hitter against Eastlake in the district championship game, her seventh of the season and second in a full seven-inning contest.

An unsung undercurrent of Jackson’s 2019 success is the emergence of junior catcher Hannah Greninger. The Timberwolves lost some key pieces from last season’s team, such as outfielder Braylin Jenson and shortstop Kristina Day, but none were as gut-wrenching as Sam Mutolo, who is currently a freshman for Western Washington’s softball program, as De Jesus’ battery mate.

“When she came into the season, she wasn’t necessarily the kid that was going to be the starting catcher, but the first two or three weeks she just kept working hard,” Peaccoke said. “Hannah Greninger’s catching and her development as a leader behind the plate has been instrumental for our success and Ice feeling comfortable.”

But it took Greninger some time for her confidence to materialize. Where she is now is a stark difference from which Peacocke told Greninger she was starting for the first time right before their preseason contest against Everett on March 15. But Peacocke could tell Greninger was up for the challenge, recording the first out of the game on a sprawling catch in foul territory.

Peacocke’s trust in her has been a significant confidence boost for Greninger, she said.

“To be associated with someone with such a great reputation (in De Jesus) just boosts my reputation and that helps just so much,” she said. “It increased my skill and technique a lot because I got more comfortable.”

The Timberwolves are peaking at the right time, but does Jackson have what it takes to repeat as champion?

At the beginning of the season, the pressure of a target being on their back was nerve-wracking for the Timberwolves.

Now, Jackson is relishing that role.

“Nobody really thinks that we’re going to do it, but hopefully we’ll prove them wrong,” De Jesus said. “People don’t like seeing teams win over and over again, especially the teams in Wesco, because we have won for so long. Everyone is rooting against us.

“It drives us.”

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