How did the Monte softball program get so good?
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There is no more emotional point in sports than the moments after a final game of the season. Never is the thrill of victory juxtaposed so perfectly with the agony of defeat. For those who end the season on a win, the joy of hoisting a trophy will be remembered for decades and for those who end the season with a loss, the memories may last long after the champion’s trophy begins to tarnish. Losses can often be motivation for the following season and coming up short can change both players and coaches. For Pat Pace and the Montesano High School fastpitch softball program, one loss 17 years ago began a tradition unparalleled by almost every other team in the state. One loss changed everything.
In 1997, after two years as the assistant coach, Pace took over the position of head coach for the Bulldog fastpitch team. Monte earned a spot in the district tournament, but with a spot in the state tournament field on the line, the Bulldogs came up short against Adna. To this day, Pace can still close his eyes and almost see the faces of the five seniors on that team.
“We lose a game that we probably should have won,” Pace said. “I had five great seniors on the team, just five great kids. They were devastated, tears and crying. I felt terrible because at that point right there I realized that was the last opportunity they were going to have a shot at going on and playing in the postseason in their prep career. I never wanted to feel that again.”
The failure of the 1997 team began a string of successes for the Monte program that is now older than some of the members on the current roster. It has been 16 years since the Montesano fastpitch team has ended the season short of the state tournament and, in that time, Pace has created a recipe for success almost unmatched in Washington prep softball.
Pace, along with his assistants Dennis Prante and Eric Pyhala, ramped up the practices in 1998 and his drive fed into an underdog group of girls. Monte finished third in the league, placed third at sub-districts and finished third in districts, but the team ignited at just the right time. The girls pulled off an almost miraculous win over Toledo, a team they had lost to three times that season, and finished the year with a 5-4 win over Kalama for the first Fastpitch state championship in school history.
Pull up to Montesano’s Hyde Field and the tradition of the Bulldog program is displayed in maroon and white on the press box … State Champs 1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009.
The one loss to Adna back in 1997 now seems so small compared to the seven state championships.
Many of the girls on the current roster have watched previous teams since they were in middle school and they come into the season with the expectation that they will be making four trips to the state tournament over their four years, but they know what it will take to get there as well. Hours spent working during the regular season blend into summer ball. In December, instead of pining for a Christmas present, some of the players are still working on their games.
“When we were younger, the older girls really influenced us,” senior right fielder Pua Cavanah said. “Everything traveled down the line. A lot of leadership, a positive attitude and a lot of hard work. The whole community supports us. It is not just letting our team members down or our coaches, it is everybody. We have a lot to live up to. It is routine to be going. We just focus on placing higher than we did the year before.”
With Montesano making a trip to the state tournament for each of the past 16 seasons, it begs the question what are the Bulldogs doing differently from all of the other 1A programs in the state to make them one of the final eight year after year? The answer to that question can differ depending on who you ask.
For Assistant Coach Lucas Wisdom the success comes from a focus on the fundamentals.
Each season has begun the same whether Monte was looking for its first state tournament birth or its 17th trip.
“Every year, for the first couple weeks, we focus on you catch it with two hands, this is how you throw, this is how you hit and it is with freshman all the way up to seniors,” Wisdom said. “So, when you are a senior, you have learned to throw for four straight years. It is the little things that we demand from the girls and then there aren’t as many errors in the games.”
The focus on the fundamentals has helped earn the Bulldogs an undefeated 8-0 record in the Evergreen 1A League and a 10-4 record overall this season.
While most teams focus on the fundamentals at times throughout the season, few teams practice like the Bulldogs. Spectators can become tired just watching a few minutes of infield practice. Practices may begin with a concentration grid, where players try to find numbers on a grid as fast as they can, or fielding grounders or even batting, but don’t expect to find anyone standing around.
“I’m running from the old school method, which was where you have the coach at the mound and you have all of the players on the field and you have one batter at the plate and the coach is throwing batting practice, but he is also trying to do fielding practice at the same time,” Pace said. “You have one kid that is getting to work and the other kids are just sitting there picking grass, losing focus so they really aren’t getting anything out of that practice.”
Instead of trying to keep a watchful eye on each one of his players, Pace trusts his assistant coaches to help him instruct the players. On one day earlier this season, the practice is broken up in groups with the infields working on ground balls in the junior high gym, while the outfielders working on catching fly balls outside and a group of catchers working in yet another area. By breaking into groups, coaches can cover more information in a shorter amount of time.
When Pace became the JV coach for Monte in 1995, his experience was in baseball. In his first two years, he learned as much from his players as they did from him, but he absorbed as much info as he could such as a right fielder can throw out a runner at first when a ball is hit hard and right at her and now each player comes to him first for information.
Whether in practice or a game, Pace prefers to take a player aside, one on one, and share what they may have done wrong instead of standing at the mound and yelling constructive criticism at each player.
During each game, a parent takes photos of each of the girls during their trip around the base paths from their swing to their slides. Then, during practice, Pace brings each player over to a computer to break down their game. Some of the meetings start out with a high five and ‘Good game,’ while others have more to go over in the pictures, but each player leaves the chair knowing exactly what they need to do to improve.
“It helps me focus on what I need to do and not what everybody else needs to do,” said sophomore third baseman Makenzie Howard. “When he breaks us down by position, it helps me get the one on one from another coach that I need to be even more successful.”
FUN AND FOCUS
For Howard, much of the Bulldog’s success comes from the closeness of the players and the dedication they have to each other. The feelings of responsibility for how the seniors end their career doesn’t stop with Pace.
“Once I got pulled up my freshman year it was so much pressure even though I didn’t start,” Howard said. “I felt like I had a job to do for this team and then I got in the lineup and I was like ‘I have to do this for these seniors who haven’t won a state championship and they need this and I need to do this for them. It made me want to be successful.”
With each added trip to state, the pressure mounts for the Bulldogs, but Pace and the other coaches make sure to find releases for the players. When rainy weather forced the team to practice indoors for several days in a row earlier this season Pace decided the team needed to just relax and make hair ties. After putting a bow on the preseason, later on, the group went bowling.
“The day we go bowling, nothing about fastpitch is ever addressed,” Wisdom said. “It’s, just, ‘Lets go have fun and make fun of each other.’ It is more than just softball; it is developing a relationship with them.”
The coaches will use whatever method to bring the team closer together even if it is a hair tie, bowling or even a hula hoop. When the seniors were asked to come up with a team building exercise, they decided to have the group of girls join hands and try to move a hula hoop around the circle without losing a grasp of their teammates. The game resulted in loud cheering, laughter and high fives from seniors to freshman.
Each game has a purpose from the concentration grid, which requires focus to tune out the loud music Pace plays during the exercise, to games of “Stanfield Says” a version of the game Simon Says that is named after assistant coach Eric Stanfield, who sounds more like an auctioneer than coach when he begins his commands.
The recipe of coaching, a focus on the fundamentals and team unity helped Monte earn third at state last season. The Bulldogs have gone four years without a championship and while none of the players on the current roster have lifted the first place trophy at state they know what it is going to take to get back to state.
“Montesano softball is successful because we have that expectation that we are going to state, but we also don’t take that at face value,” said senior second baseman Rayna Ashlock. “We know we have to work for it. We can’t just come into the program and say ‘We are from Monte, we are going to state,’ We have to work for it and everyone on the team knows that and we want to continue the tradition.”
The streak of consecutive state trips is something to be marveled at by other coaches, players and media members.
“It is extremely impressive considering you have basically had a whole generation of athletes come through without a let up in it,” said Daily World Sports Editor Rick Anderson, who has covered Montesano athletics since 1977. “They have been able to get the best athletes out and they are well schooled by the time they get to high school because of the summer youth program. They seem to peak at the right time. Pat Pace’s whole structure is getting teams ready for the state tournament. Winning the league is secondary. Lots of times they don’t have the best record going into district but they seem to peak at district or state.”
Even the Bulldogs closest rivals have helped push them toward success. In the last decade, the fastpitch programs at Hoquiam and Elma High Schools have become contenders for the district title. With two rivals clipping at their heels, the Bulldogs have worked to stay among the best in the state.
“Having two other strong softball teams in the area and playing those teams twice a year has contributed to their success as well,” Anderson said.
Just as with his first state championship in 1998, it isn’t the possibility of success that motivates Pace, but fear of failure. It is still the thought of having to look into the eyes of his seniors after a loss that keeps him motivated.
“Not making it to state would be devastating to me because of the seniors,” Pace said. “It is something I try not to think about because I don’t want that thought in my head. I still think about the 1997 season a lot.”
With six games left in the regular season, including a doubleheader against rival Elma at 3 p.m. Thursday, the Bulldogs are still a long way from punching their ticket for a 17th straight state championship, but the expectation remains for another trip.
“You know the pressure is there because you don’t want this to be the year the streak ends, but we never ever let the girls know that the pressure is there,” Wisdom said. “Never once is it ‘We have to make it to state.’ If you ask any girl out there where they are going to be the last weekend in May they are going to say state. They all expect it.”