St. Helens senior Ava Eib is batting .538 with 18 RBIs and has struck out 61 batters in 33 innings. (Photo by Jeremy Dueck)
St. Helens senior Ava Eib is batting .538 with 18 RBIs and has struck out 61 batters in 33 innings. (Photo by Jeremy Dueck)

After 22 seasons in a higher classification, the St. Helens softball team made a triumphant return to the 4A Cowapa League last year, finishing as co-champion with Astoria.

This year, the Lions have bigger plans. And with a 12-0 start and a No. 1 ranking in the OSAAtoday 4A coaches poll, they appear to be on track.

“They want to win league again, and they want to make it outright,” said Miranda Little, the team's coach since 2014. “They don't want to be a co-champion.”

The Lions have outscored their opponents 142-28, averaging 11.8 runs per game, third in 4A. They are winning with a mix of promising young players and veterans who are coming into their own.

“Some of these kids have been playing competitive 18U ball since they were freshmen, so getting to be juniors and seniors, and getting to be in the upper half of it, I can tell it feels good for them,” Little said.

The move to 4A from the 5A Northwest Oregon Conference has benefited the Lions. It allows them to rekindle their natural Highway 30 rivalry with Scappoose and reconnect with Astoria, Seaside and Tillamook.

“It's where we fit in,” Little said. “I just feel like we compete a lot better against these schools – not just softball, but all of our athletics – versus competing against Wilsonville and Canby and those schools that have a lot more students.”

Senior pitcher Ava Eib is the catalyst in the leadoff spot, batting .538 and leading the team in hits (21) and runs (23). She has three doubles, six triples, one home run and 18 RBIs.

Sophomore shortstop Addy Ellis, who was within two votes of being named the Cowapa player of the year as a freshman, is hitting .543 with 10 doubles, two triples and 18 RBIs. Junior second baseman Michaela Dueck (.439) and sophomore third baseman Madelyn Hancock (.500) also have been consistently productive.

“This team is very strong hitting-wise. It's fun to watch,” Little said.

Eib, who was the team's ace as a freshman and split time in the circle with junior Andie Brooks the last two seasons, has re-emerged as the No. 1 option. In 33 innings, she has allowed 16 hits, struck out 61 and walked 10, recording a 0.63 ERA.

Eib has good movement on her pitches and has added some pop in the past year.

“Her riseball has been beautiful,” Little said. “Her biggest difference has been her increase in speed and the consistency of her changeup. Adding velocity to her fastball and then taking some velocity off her changeup, and throwing it consistently, has been really fun to watch.”

St. Helens got its biggest win of the season last week when it went on the road to defeat No. 3 Scappoose 4-2. Eib pitched a one-hitter, giving up only two unearned runs in the bottom of the seventh. Junior outfielder Kamryn Odell got the offense going with a line-drive double. Senior catcher Emmy Carver plated one of the runs with a deep sacrifice fly.

“Scappoose had some good hits, we just had some really great defense, some great catches in the outfield,” Little said.

The return of Carver has given the team a boost. She started at catcher as a freshman and sophomore but missed last season with a broken ankle that she suffered in wrestling. She shares time behind the plate with junior McKenna Eagleston.

Little said a change in philosophy also has sparked the team. Last season, she starting combining varsity and JV practices at the high school field, providing internal competition.

“It creates that sense of urgency and drive,” she said. “Players can't get complacent in their positions because they can see the JV kids at practice every day, just biting at their heels, wanting that varsity time.”

The Lions get two big tests this week when they visit No. 6 Astoria on Tuesday and 3A No. 2 Yamhill-Carlton on Thursday. Astoria (9-2, 1-0) and Scappoose (9-4, 0-1) appear to be the primary competition for St. Helens (2-0 in league) in the Cowapa.

“I think all three of us are going to be right there again,” Little said.

Sheldon bounces back

Reigning 6A champion Sheldon (8-3) rebounded strong last week after going 1-3 against California teams at a spring break tournament in Huntington Beach, Calif.

The top-ranked Irish accomplished a rare feat in a 13-0, five-inning win at No. 6 South Medford in a Southwest Conference game April 2. Senior Brooke Peterson and sophomore Soraya Dorsey clubbed grand slams in the fourth inning to open a 10-0 lead in support of senior pitcher Payton Burnham, who tossed a one-hitter.

Sheldon followed that victory Saturday by sweeping visiting South Eugene 18-0 and 10-0 in five inning games. Burnham and Dorsey pitched shutouts and the Irish got home runs from seniors Kinley Pappas and Ashlyn Martin and junior Kaylee Waller in the doubleheader.

Sheldon coach Avery Morehead Hutsell liked how her team refocused after the California tournament, where the Irish opened with a 1-0 win over Marina before falling to Chino Hills 2-1, Norco 5-1 and Canyon View 9-2.

“We got a little piece of humble pie,” she said.

In California, Burnham recorded a shutout against Marina and started the second game before being relieved by senior Olivia Gilhuber. Burnham did not pitch in the last two games, which were started by Gilhuber and Waller.

“I didn't want to hurt Payton on this trip. It wasn't worth it,” Morehead Hutsell said.

Morehead Hutsell expects the California experience to pay off for the Irish.

“They got a lot of great exposure,” she said. “The teams we saw in Calfornia, they're just different.”

Notes: Freshman Nalani Treat delivered for South Salem in a 4-3 nonleague win over Newberg on Friday. She had three hits, including the game-winner, a bases-loaded, two-out single in the bottom of the seventh. Newberg had tied it 3-3 with two runs in the top of the seventh. Senior Rowan Thompson pitched a three-hitter with 15 strikeouts to earn the win. … Cascade Christian senior McKenzie Bonner went 12 for 14 with 10 RBIs in the team's last four games, all wins. She went 6-for-8 with seven RBIs and five runs as the Challengers swept North Valley 13-5 and 9-3 on April 2. She went 6 for 6 with two doubles, one home run, three RBIs and five runs to lead Cascade Christian past Brookings-Harbor 4-3 and 17-2 on Friday. … No. 8 Lakeridge (7-2) handed Nelson (8-1) its first loss of the season, beating the visiting Hawks 14-8 on Friday. Senior center fielder Lauren Beach rapped four extra-base hits, including two home runs, in the victory. …Umpqua Valley Christian senior Haven Frable went 3 for 3 with a double, two home runs and six RBIs in a 16-5 win over Lowell on April 1.