By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes

McNary’s goals are to repeat as Greater Valley Conference champions and then play for the 6A softball state championship at Oregon State University in June.

But in order to get there the Lady Celts will have to take it one game at a time.

“Last year we took it day-to-day and that’s where we want to focus again,” McNary head coach Kevin Wise said. “These girls are very driven and losing that (state quarterfinals) game last year, it’s been a thorn in their side since last year and they want to go all the way.”

The Lady Celts return seven starters from last season, including three seniors, Nadia Witt, Haley Ebner and Emma Kinler, who have all played on the varsity team since they were freshmen.

“All three of them are just super good kids,” Wise said. “They got up really early this morning (March 1) and all of the girls that made varsity, they went and kidnapped them and that’s how all the girls found out they made varsity and they all went out to breakfast. That’s the kind of senior leadership we have.”

Witt, who has signed with University of California, Riverside and was voted Greater Valley Conference Player of the Year in 2017 as well as First Team All-State, hit .600 last season with four home runs, 14 doubles, 28 RBIs and 38 runs.

“They were astronomical,” Wise said of Witt’s statistics. “Last year there was a little less pressure on her because we had her playing at shortstop her first couple of years and that’s not her normal spot. She went back to the outfield and she just relaxed I think and then we also put her at leadoff, which is also her normal spot.

“I expect a lot of the same or maybe even better. I don’t want to put those kinds of expectations on her. For me, my expectations for her are to just work hard, be a great leader for her younger teammates. She’s already doing that.”

Ebner, who moved to first base after playing second as a freshman and catcher as a sophomore, was also voted to the All-GVC First Team last season after hitting .465 with two home runs, 30 RBIs and 33 runs.

She has committed to Eastern Oregon University.

“Haley can play anywhere you put her,” Wise said. “Her softball knowledge is off the charts.”

Kinler, a Second Team outfielder, drove in 27 runs last year and scored 22.

Faith Danner, a junior who has started in the circle since she was a freshman, is back.

“I feel like she’s in a better spot this year and she’s working hard on a couple of pitches, especially her rise ball,” Wise said. “She knows she kind of struggled with it last year and left it a little too meaty. We want it to get up a little higher and she’s worked really hard on that. She has good movement anyways.”

McNary returns three sophomores, Alexa Cepeda (outfield), Haley Bingenheimer (shortstop) and Courtney Roberts (catcher), who all started last season as freshmen.

But this year’s freshmen class, which includes five players, Kate Ronning, Taylor Ebbs, Kamryn Miller, Abigail Covalt and Shaylee Custer, are more talented than any Wise has coached.

“This freshmen class is probably the most athletic class that I’ve ever had, since I’ve been a coach,” Wise said. “They’re fast. They’re smart. I think last year we had more power, maybe, and this year all these kids can hit and run. It’s exciting.”

The influx of talent has brought more competition.

“We go into every year just saying it’s a competition and you’ve got to work hard to earn your spot,” Wise said. “We just leave the door open. If a younger kid comes in and takes your spot, that’s what it is. I think it helps because the girls want to compete and they want to work hard and they want to drive each other and have success on and off the field.

“The only things we know for sure are Faith pitching and Courtney catching. Haley Ebner is probably going to be at first again and Nadia at center. But other than that, you’ve got to compete.”

The Lady Celts will find out how good they are early when the team that knocked them out in the state quarterfinals last season, Oregon City and All-State pitcher Morgan Hornback, come to McNary on March 23.

“I felt like if we would have played them 10 times, we probably would’ve beat them eight of 10 times, but it just wasn’t our day,” Wise said. “I think they’ve already circled that one on the calendar. They’re ready. They want that one back. But let’s take care of those games before that and then we can worry about them.”