Softball players need to light the torch

Three years ago a group of seniors walked away from the Mercer Island softball team for various reasons. Many senior athletes choose not to play a sport during their final year of high school to concentrate on academics or to prepare for college. But these seniors, a majority of them starters on the team, left at a critical time. They unknowingly started a chain reaction that has put the Mercer Island High School softball program in the worst place imaginable.

Those seniors left the squad with a lame-duck coach, destined to lose during what would be his last season with the Islanders. Despite their dismal three-win record in 2004, the Islanders had been to the playoffs the season before with a 9-11 record, a place they have not seen since. Devoid of leadership on the field, the team began a steep decline. The program has never produced a league-title contender but it has been competitive at times. The team needed to have a chance to stay competitive with on-field leadership for the youngest players.

The program is trying to rebuild after three consecutive seasons of starting over. And these restarts are not just a matter of three new coaches. More than half of the players from the last three seasons have left the program after just one year. But how can you blame them? The team has won two games in three seasons while other teams, like girls tennis and girls water polo, dominate their respective sports during the spring. Girls golf and girls lacrosse are reaching the playoffs and contending for a state title nearly every season. Why play softball and lose, when you can win a state title?

But there is a sense of loyalty that tennis, water polo, lacrosse and even golf now have. Sure, all of those sports have been relatively stable at the head coaching position. But they also play for their school’s pride, along with their own. They have a collective fire to improve and not just win, which has been passed down from seniors on losing teams to sophomores and juniors that build a winning tradition through hard work.

The girls softball program may have hit bottom April 23 as it lost 11-0 in five innings to fellow perennial cellar-dweller Interlake.

“This was our worst game of the year, hands down,” said Mercer Island softball coach Jessica Steinle. “We played at a 10-year-old’s level. It makes me angry.”

This may be a tempting time for the girls to give up on another horrific season with just two games remaining. But there is hope.

Steinle brings stability at the head coaching position as she teaches on the Island. She is committed to the program and knows how to win. You can also find hope in the most unlikely of places.

There are a lot of parallels between softball, girls basketball and girls lacrosse. All three at one time or another has been at the bottom of the league — the first two give some hope to softball.

The girls basketball team is in the middle of its rebuild. The program has gone through some lean years but has found direction through a dedicated group of parents, student athletes and consistency in the coaching ranks. Georgia Gier, who will play at Colgate University next year, passed the torch this season. No one expected a state title or even a league title. But Gier was the glue that bound the sophomores and freshmen to their work ethic on the court. She not only dedicated herself to the sport, but to her legacy with Mercer Island basketball — even if that doesn’t include a banner in the gym while she was on the team.

“The kids are getting better,” said junior varsity softball coach Kelly John-Lewis. “But it is a long journey and it is the same as what girls basketball and [head coach] Jamie [Prescott] went through.”

John-Lewis should be thanked. He is the only person who has stayed with the softball program through the last three seasons. As a Mercer Island High School graduate, he has not only a passion for the team but the school. He is a coach that the younger girls can learn pride and dedication from.

Lacrosse was one of the worst teams in the state in 2001, but just like Gier in basketball, a group of girls dedicated themselves to the lacrosse program. The girls on that team stayed with it — carrying the torch win, lose or injured. The seniors passed down their experience to juniors and sophomores, and so on. Knowledge of how to lead through the good and the bad. They passed down the simplest of traditions — playing because it is fun, not just because it looks good on a college transcript. The breakout year for girls lacrosse culminated in a trip to the state finals, proving that great play is a matter of team work and chemistry, not just talent.

But playing for fun has not been easy this year for the softball players. Mercer Island head softball coach Jessica Steinle has the hardest coaching job on the Island. She wants to help the girls win and knows how to coach. She has been at the top of the high school level with her select teams. But starting from scratch against teams with players that have been competing for up to 10 years, is extremely difficult. Trying to hit an 80-mile-per-hour fastball when you barely know the rules of the game is near impossible.

The contests against Interlake are supposed to be the two games to circle on the calendar. The ones they can win. But in the midst of shame from the final score last week, I saw seniors who were playing because they love to play. These seniors have seen a lot and they can teach a tremendous amount during the final few games of the season. They can help bring that pride back to Mercer Island softball.

“Some girls on the JV have a passion for softball,” said Steinle. “I can’t wait to get those players to varsity. But then we will lose five seniors.”

Those seniors have a chance to start some fun traditions on and off the field to keep girls wanting to be apart of a fun team. Start something that will last and light the torch that was extinguished three years ago.

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