Twelve away games in eight days is a difficult way to start the season for any team. But players and coaches on Western Washington University’s softball team say they are more than ready for their season-opening road trip.
The Vikings kicked off their season on Friday, Feb. 2 with a 6-5 win over San Francisco State in Irvine, California. They won’t play a home game until a doubleheader against the University of British Columbia on Saturday, Feb. 17.
But three-hour practices daily, except Monday, weight training in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays and additional time spent on the mental aspects of the game have Western’s players feeling prepared, said head coach Sheryl Gilmore.
Gilmore, in her sixth season, said she learns something new every year about what it takes to be a good coach and leader. Gilmore added she always looks forward to the season starting, but this year stands out.
“I know as a coaching staff we’re really excited about the potential of this team, the maturity of this team and the steps that they’re taking together to grow,” Gilmore said.
Western ended last season with a 26-23 record, even after a rash of injuries. Gilmore felt they lacked pitching depth, and many players were forced to fill in at positions they had never played before.
Despite those obstacles, they made it to the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) championship game, losing to Northwest Nazarene, 3-2. One player who had to learn a new position and excelled was now-sophomore Hailey Rath.
Rath was named GNAC Freshman of the Year and was a unanimous First Team All-GNAC selection. She started all 49 games at shortstop, a position she had never played before.
Rath finished the season with 26 extra-base hits, the second most in a single season in program history. She also hit a team-high seven home runs — second most for a freshman in school history.
“Personally, my goal is to make the most of every moment and enjoy the ride,” Rath said. “I also look to help my team get to the destination we want to be at.”
This year, the Vikings’ aim is to win the GNAC championship, something they last achieved in 2021. The GNAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll placed the Vikings second, trailing only reigning conference champ Northwest Nazarene.
For Gilmore, and players like junior transfer Riley Anderson, a lot of team growth occurs away from the field. Anderson said Gilmore somehow finds a way to mesh a variety of personalities.
“We really like to focus on valuing our personalities and how we are as players; how we handle failure,” Anderson said. “We just like building a good culture to where our success is built around our character, not just our skill.”
After starring at Lynden High School, Anderson took her talents to Lewis and Clark College, a Division III program in Portland, Oregon.
In 2023, Anderson broke the single-season school records for RBIs (52) and total bases (99). She also ranks second for most home runs in a single season with 13. Now, Anderson is thrilled to be able to walk into the stands after a game and hug her family instead of sending them a text or a link to a livestream.
“It was really eye-opening [transferring to Western],” Anderson said. “Honestly, just the team and their commitment to the sport and their love for it. I think I found a lot more people in common with my goals and my intensity for softball. It was really nice finding a group of girls who are just super passionate and love to work hard.”
In total, 11 players are returning to the team, almost all of whom started in at least five games last year.
Gilmore noted she is excited for the return of junior pitcher Joie Baker, who was injured for a good portion of last year, but made 13 appearances with a 4.01 ERA in 57.2 innings.
Sophomore returners Alexis Slater and senior Hanako Hirai add depth to the bullpen, as well as newcomers Alli Kimball and Kaiana Kong. Offensive returnees Kanilehua Pitoy, Lexi Barcomb and Amaya Davis all batted over .300 last year.
Gilmore believes the Vikings will have one of the best defenses in the conference, led by senior Taylor Khorrami, who is one of the top defensive outfielders in the GNAC and led the team in stolen bases last season.
The biggest challenge, Gilmore said, will be staying healthy and focused.
Gilmore said she is a believer in taking what you can from a loss, learning from it and implementing it in the next game. She stressed the importance of thinking tactically, rather than emotionally.
“Something that we all have to hold each other accountable to is, can we get ourselves to the next pitch?” Gilmore said. “When I say emotional, I’m not meaning that you can’t be fired up — I love that. You can bring that energy. Think more like, ‘OK, why did that happen? And what can I learn from it? And how can we continue to get better?’”