They're young, carefree, have great pitching and don't worry about making mistakes. They put a smile into the game of fast-pitch softball and drive their coach, Dale Martin, a little batty—just as he says he loves every last one of them.
Such a Gashouse Gang style has made Wood River High School's varsity into a dangerous softball team at this week's Great Basin Conference West tournament in Jerome. So dangerous, in fact, that they won two games Monday they probably had no right in winning.
The stunning two wins put Wood River in the driver's seat going for its first-ever district championship at the 4A level. The Hailey girls (12-7) have now won nine of their last 10 including four one-run victories and three two-run wins.
Wood River, fearless in close games over the last three weeks, pushed across an eighth-inning run to beat Burley for the second straight time in extra frames, this time 2-1 in Monday's opening game.
Hailey freshman Samantha Engel was nearly untouchable with a two-hitter and 18 strikeouts—certainly a school record. "Burley got one unearned run in the first and Samantha just shut the door," said Martin.
Vennesa Valentine scored the winning run on a passed ball after being bunted over to third base by Angela Coleman. The other Wolverine run came in the fifth when Trista Behr tripled and scored on a bouncing ball by Valentine.
The outcome put Wood River up against top-seeded Jerome in Monday's late game—and the Wolverines were big underdogs. Jerome had beaten Wood River 5-1 and 8-0 this season and had pounded #4-seeded Minico 16-1 in just three innings Monday in the other tournament opener.
What's worse, Jerome had saved its senior fireballer McKenzie Mangum for the Wood River game. In two starts against Wood River, Mangum had allowed just one earned run and seven hits in 14 innings, while whiffing 26. She had been nearly unhittable.
But not Monday. Wood River (13 hits) jumped on top 3-0 and broke open a 3-3 tie with a six-run fifth. When the dust settled the Wolverines upset Jerome 9-7 on a strong six-inning eight-hitter thrown by sophomore Hannah Gove, who walked one.
Martin said, "Their pitcher (Mangum) didn't have it tonight and we came out and just hit the ball. Jerome is a good softball team. Girl for girl and position for position they're better than we are. But our girls battled and didn't give up.
"The longer the game went, the more Jerome pressed and got frustrated and the looser we got. To beat a ball club like that is quite an achievement."
Hailey's winning rally started quietly in the fifth. Engel (3 hits) ripped a ground-rule double. K.D. Pruett followed with a solid single to right off Mangum. Gove (2 hits) walked and Behr (2 hits) whacked a first-pitch offering up the middle for a two-run single and 5-3 lead. But Wood River wasn't finished, not in the least.
LeighAndra Roberts drew a walk to fill the bases and Valentine (2 runs) hit an RBI grounder. Coleman (2 hits) battered an RBI double to right that knocked Mangum out of the pitcher's box. But the Wolverines kept going against reliever Ashley Morell as Engel belted a two-run single. Eleven batters, six runs and a 9-3 lead.
The big inning stunned Jerome. On the mound, Gove (2-2) kept smiling and mixing her speeds. Martin said, "Hannah throws that in-between pitch and has a great change-up. She throws strikes and makes them hit the ball."
Gove shrugged off a couple of Wolverine errors and yielded only single runs in the fifth and sixth innings. Jerome, trailing 9-5, threatened in the seventh when its best players, Mangum and catcher Jennifer Bamburg, led off with hits. Gove gave up a two-run single to Chelsea Craig then got three straight outs—two infield grounders and a huge strikeout on a change-up.
Jerome (11-6-2) and Burley (4-14) battled in a loser-out game Tuesday afternoon, with the winner going against Wood River later Tuesday for the Great Basin district title.
With a win, Wood River would have earned the fifth state softball tournament berth in school history and its first district championship since 2002, when Samantha's older sister Amanda Engel was playing, and 1998, when Rebecca Engel was on the team.
Regardless of Tuesday's outcome, Wood River has another game Thursday in Pocatello—either a state play-in or a state seeding contest depending on Tuesday's results at Jerome. And the State 4A tournament is May 18, also in Pocatello.