Despite the national rankings and personal accolades that Bend's softball team received last season, the Lava Bears were left with an empty feeling when it was over.
Bend had expectations of claiming its first state championship, but stumbled in the 6A semifinals, losing to Oregon City 4-0 in nine innings. It was a bitter ending to a season in which the Lava Bears held the top ranking in the 6A coaches poll all year, finished 29-2 and outscored their opponents 277-38.
“It definitely hurt a bit,” said junior pitcher Addisen Fisher, who had 21 strikeouts in the semifinal loss. “We were all really, really upset. I just remember going home afterwards and just sitting and staring at the wall for like two hours. It was definitely a tough loss, but it got a fire going under us.”
This season, Bend gets its chance at redemption. The Lava Bears bring back most of their lineup – including the UCLA-bound Fisher, rated as the top junior recruit in the country by Extra Innings Softball – and begin the year ranked No. 15 nationally by MaxPreps and No. 16 by USA Today.
“This group is pretty focused and dialed in,” said first-year coach Rob Ray, who left Glencoe to replace the retired Tom Mauldin. “There's great leadership on this team, even with the younger kids we have. They know what they missed out on last year.”
The major change for Bend is a switch to 5A. After being challenged by McNary and South Salem in the 6A Mountain Valley Conference last season, the Lava Bears will be overwhelming favorites in the 5A Intermountain Conference this season.
Fisher said the team is disappointed in moving down to 5A.
"We were so close last year, and we feel like we could have made it even further this year," she said. "The competition, it's still going to be pretty dang good, but it probably won't be as good as it was in 6A. Nonetheless, we're still very motivated to go on and prove why people think we're good.”
Ray, who combined with Wilbur Charters to coach Southridge to a big-school state title in 2005 and guide the Northwest Blaze to a 16U-A national title in 2009, knows that his team must learn how to cope with the pressure that comes with such expectations.
“Last year they played in a lot of tense situations,” Ray said. “There's talent here, so how do we have fun and get all the stress off our back? I remind them every week that there's a target not only on their back, but on their front.”
The Lava Bears landed at No. 2 in the OSAAtoday 5A preseason coaches poll, behind Wilsonville. Bend finished second in the poll despite receiving seven of the 11 first-place votes.
“That gives us a little bit of incentive,” Ray said.
Said Fisher: “With the move down to 5A this year, there's no better way to say it, we're ready to go kick some butt.”
The 5-foot-10 Fisher, the two-time Gatorade state player of the year, gives Bend a huge advantage. Last season, she went 20-1 with a 0.95 ERA, throwing 14 no-hitters, nine of them in seven innings. In 122 1/3 innings, she allowed 43 hits, walked 17 and struck out 259.
“She's kind of a freak of nature,” Ray said of Fisher, who also batted .510 with 13 home runs and 32 RBIs. “She's got unbelievable talent. She's our dominant pitcher, but she could play pretty much anywhere.”
Fisher, whose fastball tops out at 72 mph, heard from more than 40 schools once colleges were able to contact her after Sept. 1. She didn't wait long to make her decision, committing to UCLA in early October.
Fisher said that UCLA has been her “dream school since I was a little girl.” It was her second visit, coming after Oklahoma.
“At first I wasn't feeling it,” she said. “But then I put the uniform on, and I walked out and looked at myself in the mirror, and I was like, 'Yeah.' I think I look pretty good in blue. My parents looked at me and I could see they had tears in their eyes.”
Ray said that Fisher's early commitment will allow her to focus on the task at hand.
“Obviously, there's still a little bit of hype and excitement, but she knows what she needs to do,” Ray said.
Bend has another one of the state's top seniors in Gracie Goewey, who has signed with Siena (N.Y.). Goewey also is dominant in the circle (6-1, 0.86 ERA, 86 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings) and swings a big bat, hitting .485 with 15 home runs and 61 RBIs last season.
Goewey will start the season playing in center field and will see time at third base and shortstop.
“She just crushes the ball,” Ray said of Goewey, who has 25 home runs and 100 RBIs in 50 games in the last two seasons. “She is talented. She is very A-type. She's just kind of the life of the party.”
The other starters back are senior catcher Sophia Weathers, senior first baseman Allison Parker (committed to Oregon Tech as a pitcher), junior right fielder Bryanna Schaefer and junior left fielder Jet Hovey. The Lava Bears graduated three infielders from last season but are confident they can reload at those spots.
“My dilemma is not what hole I'm going to fill, it's just who I'm going to put in there,” Ray said.
Ray, a 1979 Hillsboro graduate who played baseball at Brigham Young, has coached more than 40 Division I softball players in high school and club ball. He coached at Southridge (2002-15) with Charters and stepped away from coaching until getting hired at Glencoe in late 2019, going 10-8 and 4-19 in his two seasons with the Crimson Tide.
He had been contemplating a move to central Oregon – home of his oldest daughter, Whitnie, who played at Jesuit (2004), James Madison and Utah State – and applied for the Bend position after learning of Mauldin's retirement.
“I knew I had to get over here eventually,” Ray said. “The timing was right. It was a pretty quick deal. They had some interest because of my background and experience. Me moving over here, it kind of solidified the deal.
“I've been fortunate enough to be accepted. They've just kind of jumped on board. The transition has been really good.”
Bend opens its season Friday with a home game against 6A Sherwood. The Lava Bears' nonleague schedule includes games against four teams in the top 10 of the 6A coaches poll in No. 3 Sheldon, No. 4 South Medford, No. 5 McMinnville and No. 8 Westview. They also will face three ranked 5A teams in No. 4 Dallas, No. 5 Crater, No. 6 Ridgview and No. 9 Canby.
“I think we're going to be a lot better this year,” Fisher said. “We're all just very motivated. We're a lot more cohesive as a team, which makes all the difference.”