The Junior Little League lady Cubs, the first softball team in Wallowa County history to win a state championship, are hard at work down at the Jensen ball fields every evening. The squad is advancing to the regional championships in Tucson, Ariz this week, something this confident squad is looking forward to.
Coach Shane Kirkland is a noted coach who has already won a little league baseball state championship, but this is the first time he’s taken a team to a regional championship. He noted the generosity of local citizens in ensuring that the team has the means to get to Arizona.
“We’ve done a lot of fundraising and a lot of raffles for this,” he said. “We’re departing Tuesday (July 16), driving to Portland and flying down to Tucson.” He added that the team and their families are staying at OMNI National, a resort.
The team’s practice regimen isn’t much different despite the higher level of play according to Kirkland.
“We’re preparing basically the same as any other game,” Kirkland said. “We’re trying not to make a big deal out of it. We’re trying to keep the girls relaxed and having some fun. More important than anything, we’re trying to make sure they enjoy this time.” The coach also noted the girls have good attitudes during their preparations for the next level of play.
“Their spirits are great,” he said. “No one’s out in front of themselves, which is easy to do because we’ve beat up on a lot of teams. They’re working just as hard as they would with any other practice.”
This is striking, because the team is so young. What is essentially supposed to be a team of 13-15 year-olds has an average age of 12.82 years, although they don’t act like it. While they obviously have fun, they’re serious about what they’re doing. Giggling happens only occasionally. Throws have a lot of zip with very little arc and pop into mitts with more than a little force. The very few mistakes made are met with encouragement from both coaches and teammates.
Coach Kirkland has an easy rapport with the team, and the mutual respect they share is more than a little obvious. Players are attentive when Kirkland points out small mistakes with suggested corrections and no one talks back or shows annoyance, even in a joking way. The team is famous for its double-play ability, which is probably better than the high school squad.
Sydney Hopkins, 14 and preparing to enter her freshman year of high school, plays outfield. She’s very excited about the team’s state championship and only a little nervous about playing in Arizona. She hasn’t been to the state since she was little.
“It gives them home-court advantage,” she said. She added that the team helps her stay grounded through its sense of humor.
Asked her expectations for the upcoming tournament, she replied, “We’re going to go kick some booty.”
Emmerson Hook is an 11-year-old prospective player for the squad next year. Kirkland invited her to the practices because of her potential as player at both the pitcher, catcher and first base positions.
“The coach invited me out here, and I came to learn some stuff and get some experience for next year,” she said. “It’s awesome to practice with the team and learn.”
Later, asked about his expectations for the tournament, Kirkland shook his head before he spoke.
“Expectations are to go down and make sure everyone has a good time,” he said. “We’re just going to go down there and do our best.”
The Cubs’ first game is at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 17. Fans can follow the game on Gamechanger online. Should the team prevail in Tucson, they will play the next level at Kirkland, Washington.