Sheldon senior Payton Burnham, signed with Arkansas, struck out 375 in 186 innings last season. (Photo by Tina Sams)
Sheldon senior Payton Burnham, signed with Arkansas, struck out 375 in 186 innings last season. (Photo by Tina Sams)

Perhaps no softball team had fewer question marks entering the season than reigning 6A champion Sheldon.

The senior-dominated Irish brought back seven starters from a team that finished 30-1, including the 6A pitcher of the year in Arkansas-bound senior Payton Burnham and two first-team all-state picks in senior catcher Kinley Pappas and senior third baseman Brooke Peterson.

If Sheldon has any X-factor at all, it could be how the team responds to a first-year coach in Avery Morehead Hutsell. The 2017 Sheldon graduate joined the coaching staff as an assistant last season and was promoted to replace Mike Faulconer, who resigned after going 136-56 in seven seasons, including state titles in 2019 and 2023.

“I'm learning and growing as a coach, but these girls are really teaching me a lot,” Morehead Hutsell said. “Every game there's something that comes up.”

Morehead Hutsell not only knows what it takes to win a title, but to defend one. She was a member of back-to-back national championship teams at Southern Oregon University.

“I told them that we're going to raise our expectations of what we can do,” she said. “They have endless potential. They're a really amazing and talented group.”

The seniors who have played together since elementary school in the Eugene Lightning club program are determined to make this season a memorable one.

“Wanting to play together as long as possible is that end goal, because after this year, it'll be a completely different team,” Morehead Hutsell said. “This is their last year playing together as one whole team.”

The Irish have a dynamic cornerstone in Burnham. In 186 innings last season, the right-hander struck out 375 and walked 23. She allowed 46 hits and five earned runs, posting a 0.19 ERA.

Burnham swings a big bat, too, showing her power March 15 by hitting three home runs in a 13-1 win at McNary. Last season, she hit .404 with five home runs and 35 RBIs.

Burnham was named a first-team All-American by Extra Inning Softball. She was committed to Oregon State, but after visiting Arkansas in September, she signed with the Razorbacks.

“She's just incredibly dedicated,” Morehead Hutsell said. “She's a gamer. She's goes hard no matter what and she wants to win everything. I feel like there's a relief for her that she's going to school next year. She can relax a little bit.”

Pappas batted leadoff last year and hit .527 with 18 doubles, three home runs and 26 RBIs. But she will move to the No. 2 spot this season, swapping with Peterson, who hit .479 in 2023.

“We're flip-flopping it because Brooke's on-base percentage is insane, and Kinley can hit the ball very well, so why not have a baserunner on when Kinley's hitting?” Morehead Hutsell said.

Senior shortstop Avery Coffin (.346, five home runs, 30 RBIs last season), recently committed to Southern Oregon, will bat third. Burnham will remain in the cleanup spot.

Sheldon's other returning starters are senior first baseman Ashlyn Martin, senior right fielder Kara Gebb and senior left fielder Olivia Gilhuber.

Junior Jazmin Gallegos will play second base, a spot vacated when senior Kylie Resides transferred to Harrisburg. Freshman Savannah McKibben, a slap hitter who bats ninth, fills the hole in center field left by the graduation of Meara Sain, a first-team all-state pick.

Sheldon won its first three games in five innings, defeating Thurston 16-0, McNary 13-1 and Willamette 11-0, before outlasting North Medford 8-5 in a rain-soaked game Saturday. Burnham was touched for three earned runs in the rain.

“She was not pleased with herself,” Morehead Hutsell said. “It was a very wet day.”

Pappas has been on fire at the plate, recording only one out through four games. Coffin hit a grand slam against McNary.

This week, Sheldon has opted to forgo playing in the North Medford Spring Break Tournament to travel to a tournament in Anaheim, Calif. The Irish will play in five games from Wednesday through Saturday.

Morehead Hutsell said facing teams from Southern California and Arizona will benefit the Irish.

“They're on a whole other level,” she said. “I wanted to get them exposed to those kind of games to prepare them for this postseason. The Medford tournament is great, but we play those teams every year. I wanted to challenge them a little bit.”

Sheldon, No. 1 in the OSAAtoday 6A coaches poll, expects to be challenged in the Southwest Conference by No. 5 South Medford. The Panthers were the only team to defeat the Irish last season, winning 3-2 in the second game of a doubleheader.

Burns streak halted at 59

Burns' state-record winning streak came to an end at 59 games in the team's season opener at Pendleton on March 14.

The two-time reigning 3A champion Hilanders, ranked No. 1 in the OSAAtoday 3A coaches poll, lost 4-3 to the Buckaroos, ranked third in 4A.

With the score tied in the bottom of the seventh, Pendleton sophomore Avery Quaempts doubled to center field to score senior Madaline Schumacher from second base with the winning run.

Burns took a 2-1 lead in the fifth inning on a solo home run by senior Ashley Wright and a bases-loaded walk. The Hilanders made it 3-1 in the sixth on an RBI single by junior Gracie Mello.

The Buckaroos scored twice in the sixth to tie 3-3. Quaempts hit a leadoff triple, junior Ella Sams walked and both scored on an error.

Junior pitcher Reese Furstenberg got the win for Pendleton, throwing a two-hitter with 16 strikeouts and six walks. Burns senior Ayla Davies gave up six hits, struck out 13 and walked five.

It was Burns' first loss since falling at Grant Union 4-0 in the 2022 season opener.

Pendleton started the season 5-0 before losing both ends of a doubleheader against visiting Scappoose on Friday. The 4A No. 2 Indians won 7-2 and 8-2.

Champions collide

Burns suffered another setback March 21 at reigning 2A/1A champion Grant Union.

The host Prospectors won 2-1 behind senior pitcher Drew Williams, who struck out 17 and did not walk a batter. She outdueled Burns' Davies, who allowed five hits, struck out 15 and walked one.

Burns (2-2) scored the game's first run in the second inning on an error. Grant Union tied it 1-1 in the third inning when sophomore Taylor Palmateer's squeeze bunt scored junior Reece Jacobs from third base on a two-out, two-strike pitch.

Senior Halle Parsons homered off Davies in the fourth inning to give the Prospectors (3-0) the go-ahead run.

Grant Union is No. 1 in the 2A/1A coaches poll.

Notes: Gresham sophomore Maddy Sagapolutele, who hit a team-high 14 home runs for 4A champion The Dalles last season, belted three homers in the first game of a doubleheader at Roseburg on March 15. The Gophers won 9-6. … Lowell sophomore Madison Thurman helped her team get off to a 3-0 start. In wins over Toledo, Bonanza and Mohawk, she hit two doubles, one triple and two home runs, drove in 10 runs and stole seven bases. … Colton sophomore Katelynn Kimsey put up big numbers as the Vikings defeated Eddyville Charter 18-3 and Vernonia 28-13 last week. She went 7 for 9 with two doubles, three triples and a grand slam, collecting 13 RBIs. She also stole three bases.