Lake Stevens pitcher Sara Johnson delivers a pitch during a game against Jackson at Jackson High School in Mill Creek on Tuesday, May 2. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Lake Stevens pitcher Sara Johnson delivers a pitch during a game against Jackson at Jackson High School in Mill Creek on Tuesday, May 2. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Wesco 4A teams well-armed headed into district playoffs

Blazing fastballs. Devastating secondary pitches. And a whole lot of strikeouts.

Between the Lake Stevens, Monroe and Jackson high school softball teams, dominant pitching has ruled Wesco 4A this season.

Each of the three juggernauts features an NCAA Division I-bound ace with a sub-1.50 earned-run average. Each team has a pitcher who averages at least 1.5 strikeouts per inning. And all three squads are allowing two or less runs per game.

Led by their star hurlers, the Vikings, Bearcats and Timberwolves finished 1-2-3 in the conference standings while going a combined 30-0 against the league’s other five teams.

“It’s really impressive when you have that kind of pitching in the same conference,” Jackson coach Kyle Peacocke said. “You know you’re seeing some of the best pitchers around.”

The standout pitching of Lake Stevens’ Sara Johnson, Jackson’s Iyanla Pennington and Monroe’s tandem of McKenzie Schulz and Sarah Reeves figures to be on full display during the 4A District tournament, which runs Monday through Thursday at Phil Johnson Ballfields in Everett.

And with just two state berths up for grabs, the competition should be fierce.

“Those are some of the best pitchers that you would see at the state tournament,” Peacocke said. “And, unfortunately, all of them aren’t going to go.”

“You could probably easily put all three of these teams in the top 10 of the state,” Monroe coach Mike Birch added. “And only two are going to (advance to state). So from that standpoint, it’s kind of a shame. That adds a whole other level of pressure when you’re going into these games.”

If district is anything like their regular-season encounters, runs will be at a premium when the league’s three powerhouses — and their sensational pitchers — square off.

Although each of the three teams averages at least 8.7 runs per game, their elite pitching has stymied the offensive firepower. In their six regular-season matchups against one another, the three league rivals managed just 19 runs combined — a mere 1.6 runs per team per game.

All six of those contests were decided by three runs or less, and three were one-run games.

“It’ll probably be a one- or two-run ballgame and it’ll be intense for seven innings,” Lake Stevens coach Sarah Hirsch said of the upcoming district tournament. “It’s going to be tough, for sure.”

Lake Stevens’ lefty ace

After a strong freshman campaign, Johnson was disappointed with her performance last year as a sophomore. But the Lake Stevens junior has bounced back with a brilliant season this spring.

Johnson, a tall left-hander, has a 1.03 ERA in 86 2/3 innings and 144 strikeouts, an average of 1.66 per inning. Her stellar pitching led the Vikings (18-1) to the Wesco 4A title, just one year after the team went 11-10.

“She’s been phenomenal,” Hirsch said. “She came in this season wanting to be better than she was before and knowing that she has the ability to be the top pitcher in the area. And she wanted to go out and prove it to everybody.”

Hirsch and Johnson attribute some of the pitcher’s struggles last season to pressure from an unsettled college future. But that pressure lifted when she committed to play Division I softball at Towson University in Maryland.

And after approaching this season with extra motivation, Johnson has at times been borderline unhittable.

In four games against powerhouses Monroe and Jackson, the hard-throwing ace allowed a total of two earned runs and 12 hits, and struck out 47. Those gems included a one-hitter and a pair of three-hit shutouts.

“She’s just really tough,” Peacocke said. “When she gets ahead of you, you’re in deep trouble. She has a really good rise ball and mixes her pitches up really well.”

Monroe’s dynamic duo

Entering the season, Birch knew his Bearcats had a bona fide ace in University of Washington commit Schulz. And he knew he had a talented pitcher behind her in Reeves.

Yet not even Birch could have forecast how dynamic that junior duo would be. Led by Schulz and Reeves, Monroe (16-4) finished second in Wesco 4A and allowed a league-low one run per game in conference play.

“We’ve had a couple games where we’ve either started with (McKenzie) or Sarah, and then once (the opponent) sees one pitcher two times through the order, we switch it up,” Birch said. “Sarah throws a little bit slower than (McKenzie) and she’s got a little bit more movement on her ball. She’s got a really nice changeup, and just that difference has been really effective for us.”

“You prep for (one) and then you get (the other), and it’s totally different,” Hirsch added. “So it’s hard, because you’ve got to be able to prepare for both.”

Schulz, a hard-throwing lefty, has followed strong freshman and sophomore campaigns with another standout season this spring. She has a 1.31 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 48 innings.

“She’s been dominant and she works real hard,” Birch said. “She came into (high school) with a lot of speed to her ball and was throwing in the low 60s. And since she was a freshman, she’s worked on a lot more movement and on her off-speed and changeup to complement that speed.”

Reeves, a change-of-pace righty, has the most eye-catching statistics of the league’s four elite pitchers.

She has allowed only one earned run in 41 innings, equating to a 0.17 ERA. She has struck out 85 batters, an average of 2.07 strikeouts per inning. And she handed Lake Stevens its only loss of the season, tossing a three-hitter in an eight-inning victory.

“You could think of her as more of a junk-ball pitcher,” Birch said. “She’s not as fast as (McKenzie), she doesn’t really rely on her speed as much as she relies on her movement and just keeping batters off-balance.”

“Of all the (Wesco 4A) pitchers, she has the best changeup,” Peacocke added. “And when she has that going, she makes it really tough.”

Jackson’s sophomore sensation

Iyanla Pennington had big shoes to fill this season after the graduation of standout pitcher Sophie Frost, who led Jackson to a fourth-place finish at state last year before moving on to play Division I softball for Cal State Fullerton.

But the Timberwolves’ sophomore sensation has been up to the task.

Pennington, a Division I commit to Coastal Carolina University, has a 1.49 ERA in 80 innings pitched and 125 strikeouts, an average of 1.56 per inning. Her stellar pitching led Jackson (17-3) to a third-place finish in Wesco 4A.

“She’s really just done an incredible job,” Peacocke said. “She’s grown in her control and her maturity. And she had a lot of pressure coming into the season because of the things that Sophie had done in the last couple of years. I just can’t say enough with how she’s done.”

In just her third varsity start, Pennington handed defending 4A state champion Snohomish its only loss of the season, striking out 13 and limiting the high-powered Panthers to one run.

And in perhaps her most impressive performance thus far, the hard-throwing righty struck out 16 in a three-hit shutout of Glacier Peak, the second-highest-scoring team in Wesco 4A.

“She’s a power pitcher,” Peacocke said. “She throws very hard. She has a very good rise ball and she moves the ball in and out of the strike zone really well. Her best games that she’s had this year, she’s had command of her changeup. … (When) she’s able to throw that consistently in games, she’s very tough to hit.”

Pennington credits Frost for helping show her the ropes. In addition to being teammates last season, the two played on different age-based teams in the same summer program.

“I look up to her a lot and I learned a lot of things from her,” Pennington said. “I saw how she composed herself against teams and how she reacted to certain things. It kind of just taught me how to do things coming up to this year. She was a really big mentor to me.”

Impossible to replicate

For Wesco 4A hitters, facing top-tier pitching has been a common occurrence in recent years. Just last season, opposing teams had to deal with the elite trio of Schulz, Frost and Snohomish standout hurler Bailey Greenlee.

Since then, Frost has graduated and Greenlee’s Panthers have moved down to 3A. But with the return of Schulz and the emergence of Johnson, Pennington and Reeves, the league’s pitching is once again dominating opposing hitters.

“It’s a dogfight,” Peacocke said. “Offensively, you’re just trying to make contact and have good at-bats. And hopefully you can get a leadoff runner or two on, so that you can bunt them over and give yourself an opportunity to get a run.”

As Hirsch explains, preparing her team to face such dominant pitching is an immense challenge. Even though she has an ace of her own, Hirsch can’t afford to wear down Johnson in practice before a big game. That makes it nearly impossible to simulate what her hitters will see in those contests.

“Finding ways to emulate that speed and that movement has been the hardest piece when you’re going to have to face it,” Hirsch said. “You set the cages up close and try to throw it as hard as you can, but it’s still not near what you get when you’re looking at those (star pitchers) throwing pitches at you.”

Largely because of that high-caliber pitching, the regular-season matchups between Lake Stevens, Monroe and Jackson resembled playoff-type atmospheres. Now, with the district tournament set to begin, it’s time for the real deal.

“I think all three of these teams, we all get really pumped up to face one another. The energy is going to be really high,” Birch said.

“We’re all very evenly matched. The games that we’ve played against each other this season have all come down to either key hits or whoever makes the fewest amount of mistakes. … It’s going to be quite a battle.”

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