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First-year Kelseyville softball coach Phil Psalmonds will never be mistaken for a pitch man the way he downplays his team’s chances against perennial powerhouse Cloverdale.

But perhaps it’s just strategy, because in today’s showdown of the only two unbeaten teams in the North Central I league, Kelseyville clearly comes in loaded.

The Knights are 13-1 and 8-0 in league with a roster that doesn’t scream star power, but certainly shouts consistency.

“We are really good at defense. We don’t commit errors,” he said. “Our pitching isn’t dominant, out hitting isn’t dominant. We are scraping by in a lot of games. There are a lot of games that could have gone either way.”

Yes, they have had some squeakers this season. But the Knights have also put the hurt on a lot of squads, much like the team in the other dugout this afternoon. This is truly a clash of the titans.

The Knights travel today to face Cloverdale, a buzz saw of a team that is 10-0 overall and 7-0 in league.

The Eagles rely on the play of two-way ace, sophomore Tehya Bird. Bird’s 0.75 ERA is a daunting proposition for opponents, but when coupled with her .767 batting average, the University of Oregon commit is truly a terror.

“(Bird) is the best pitcher in the league,” Psalmonds said. “She is going to college to play softball. She throws harder than anyone in our league. She is probably the best hitter, too.”

Scarier still? Longtime Cloverdale coach Margaret Fitzgerald said that the Eagles have a more formidable group surrounding Bird this season than they did last year when they finished 12-2 in league.

“We are better than we were last year,” she said. “It’s a little easier this year. Our bats come around up and down the line, I’m real happy about that.”

After Bird’s otherworldly .767, the Eagles are hitting at a good clip. Junior Heather Sterling is hitting .595, sophomore Lane Hughes is hitting .450 and freshman Vanessa Fisher is right behind at .447.

Good thing Psalmonds loves his defense.

“We are fundamentally sound,” he said. “If you make errors and give extra outs, it always comes back to haunt you.”

The Knights will line that defense up behind sophomore pitcher Allison Bryant.

“She is, probably speedwise, one of the slower pitchers in the entire league, but she spots her pitches,” Psalmonds said. “She doesn’t throw it right over the plate. She never gives you a really good pitch to hit. She is living on the edge. She is more of a pitcher than a thrower.”

If Bryant takes a bit of time getting her pitches over the plate, catcher Taylor Paulich gives her a helping hand with her cannon of an arm, Psalmonds said.

“She is an outstanding defensive catcher, with a really good arm,” he said. “I think she has thrown out more baserunners than have been successful.”

Which makes for a great matchup because Fitgerald says her Eagles can fly.

“We have some pretty fast girls this year. I’m happy that we have speed on the bases,” she said.

That may prove to be a key factor in today’s match up. A stolen base can set the tone — but so, too, can a defensive play that picks off a runner.


What: North Bay League Championships

Where: Santa Rosa Junior College

When: 4 p.m. Friday, 500-yard freestyle; preliminary races start 9:30 am. Saturday; finals start at 2 p.m.

“For sure,” Psalmonds said. “Just about every game, coaches have tried early to steal and they get caught and there goes that part of the game.”

Something tells me that Fitzgerald will give her kids the go-ahead today, just to test the waters. That first try may prove pivotal.

At the plate, Kelseyville has solid hitting. Senior Tymeka Green and sophomore Paige Bour are both hitting .379 and senior Bib Hamner is hitting .353 while junior Gracie Davidson is coming into the game with a .344 average.

In addition to home field advantage, Cloverdale has a run of success in league titles that Kelseyville can’t match of late. That should give Cloverdale a certain swagger right out of the gate.

Since 2012, the Eagles have finished no worse than second place in the NCL I and have won the league title outright three times.

Seeded No. 3 in last year’s North Coast Section Division 5 tournament, the Eagles were ousted in the semifinals. Kelseyville, also the No. 3 seed but in Division 4, also lost in the semifinals.

While Fitzgerald said this year’s squad is better than the group she had last year, she does not want to spend time talking about the postseason. Not yet.

“Our first goal is to win league,” she said. “That is our first goal. Then we move on to playoffs.”

But the Eagles will have to get around a Kelseyville team that has built up a mighty solid record based on steady play and a bit of grit.

Fitzgerald said her squad knows how important this game is to both sides.

“They know it,” she said. “They know it’s a big game.”

The Knights know it, too.

They’ve been setting the pitching machine to 70 mph in preparation for the best pitcher in the league.

“It is a game, have fun and don’t be stressed out,” Psalmonds said. “Take it as a challenge with a smile on your face.”

That may be the only part of the game where Kelseyville has the advantage — expectation. The pressure is on the home team to get the win.

“They are definitely favored,” Psalmonds said. “We are going to have to play the perfect game to beat them.”

With two teams with perfect records clashing, it might be a perfect game no matter who wins.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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