Benefield: Cloverdale softball team improves on greatness

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The Cloverdale High School softball team went 19-1 last season and won the North Coast Section Division 5 title. They are better this year.

Last year, Eagles superstar Tehya Bird hit. 667 with 11 homers, 37 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .816 in 20 games. This year, she, too, is better.

But as phenomenal is Bird is, the Eagles are not a one-player wonder. Up and down the roster, the Eagles are a better squad than the team that won it all last year, going 23-0 in the regular season this year.

Their reward? They were bumped up a division and are now competing in Division 4 against the likes of Cardinal Newman and Arcata in the NCS tournament that starts Tuesday. The Eagles clearly have earned the respect of section officials, because in addition to the divisional promotion, they secured the No. 1 seed.

Despite their relative youth, Eagles coach Margaret Fitzgerald does not expect her team to be starstruck or even nervous.

“We are only a school of 350 playing with the big boys — Cardinal Newman, McKinleyville, Salesian, Arcata. You know, there are some good teams,” she said. “I tell them it’s an honor. They just look at it as a challenge, they are not overthinking it. They are not thinking ‘Oh no, we can’t do this, we’re going to lose.’”

That mentality might very well be a function of the Eagles simply not remembering how to lose — it hasn’t happened they fell 2-1 to Fort Bragg on May 3, 2018.

“I know there is a lot of tough competition, but I feel like we are on the same level as everyone,” junior catcher Lane Hughes said. “We’ll battle.”

The Eagles should be familiar with at least a couple other teams in their bracket.

They dispatched El Molino, the 12th seed, 8-2 on March 15 and beat Arcata, the 6th seed, 4-1, on April 27.

Cardinal Newman (19-4 overall, 10-0 in North Bay League-Redwood Division), got the No. 3 seed, and Big 5 champs McKinleyville (20-3, 11-1 in league) got the second seed. All three, as well as fourth seed Salesian College Prep, have first round byes.

And that may be the biggest hurdle the Eagles face all-post season: Downtime.

The last time the Eagles played was a week ago. With a first-round bye and steady rain in the forecast, the team could be faced with the same kind of scheduling issues that plagued just about every team in the Redwood Empire when once-in-a-generation rains soaked the early days of the season.

So Fitzgerald is bringing in some guest arms this week to give the team live pitching so that batters’ timing doesn’t fall off.

“You need live pitching to keep your mojo going,” she said.

The Eagles have not lacked mojo all season.

In their 23 games, the Eagles have scored 254 runs this season and allowed 30.

Think those numbers are gaudy? Consider Bird’s alone: The junior, committed to play for the University of Oregon post-graduation, is hitting .750 with 12 homers and 35 walks. She gets on base 84% of the time. In the pitcher’s circle, she’s won 23 straight behind a 0.66 ERA.

“We have all the confidence in the world with Tehya,” senior Heather Sterling said. “She can do just about anything. It’s so amazing playing with her.”

Bird, for one, expects to see a higher level of discretion at the plate from Div. 4 batters.

“I think their hitters are going to be more disciplined and more selective,” she said. “I need to be on my game pitching-wise. I know that if I throw my drop curve in the dirt, they are not going to swing on it.”

But Bird’s longtime catcher Hughes doesn’t expect she’ll have to dig too many of Bird’s pitches out of the dirt.

“She hits her spots very well. She knows right where to pitch it,” she said.

Which is made more noteworthy because Bird doesn’t pitch except when she’s wearing her Eagles uniform. She’s an infielder on her travel ball squads and after an injury to her throwing arm some time ago, she actually doesn’t like pitching as much these days.

“I said I would keep pitching for the high school team and once I’m done with high school I probably won’t do it again,” she said.

That’s cold comfort for the teams she has to face — especially this season after she cleaned up a few things on her delivery.

“My biggest thing, pitching last year, I don’t really know what happened to my pitching mechanics. They were super off,” she said. This season, it’s much cleaner. “I’m more consistent, my speed, my spots.”

But Bird isn’t the only Eagles hitter who is producing stellar numbers. The entire lineup is loaded.

“We’re hitting up and down our lineup, not just the top of the lineup but our players at the bottom of the lineup,” Hughes said.

Hughes is hitting .425 with 33 RBIs — the second-highest total on the team. And Sterling and freshman Faith Holloman are both hitting .486. Sophomore Janaye Hammond, junior Maci Hernandez and sophomore Alyssa Moffett are hitting .355, .333 and .321 respectively.

“Alyssa has improved tremendously in batting and so has Janaye,” Hughes said.

Funny, Hughes’ best friend, one Tehya Bird, used the exact same phrase.

“Alyssa Moffett, her bat has been way better,” Bird said. “It’s improved tremendously, which helps us a lot.”

Moffett’s versatility in the field hasn’t gone unnoticed either. When the Eagles lost sophomore Vanessa Fisher from the infield part way through the season, some pieces had to be moved around. Moffett was a key to making those changes work, teammates said.

“She’s been moving all over the place,” Bird said. “She’s played shortstop, outfield, a little bit of third base — she is doing whatever she needs to help our team, which is huge.”

That flexibility, that versatility, it comes with age, Fitzgerald said. She sees evidence of maturity all over her roster.

“We are a year older, a year wiser,” she said. “There are not as many errors.”

Fitzgerald credited Sterling, one of just three seniors on the roster and the only one with significant impact on the field, with setting the tone with the squad.

“Heather Sterling, she is by far the glue to that infield,” she said of her three-year second baseman.

The number that is telling about Sterling is not the .486 batting average or 21 RBIs, Bird said. It’s “1.”

“She just made her first error,” Bird said, almost laughing at her teammate’s proficiency. “And it wasn’t even a fair error. … It’s what I expect out of her. She’s an amazing player and amazing person.”

The Eagles know that after a relatively easy romp through North Central League I play at 14-0, things are about to get really interesting, really fast.

They are ready, Fitzgerald said.

“It’s a challenge playing those big teams, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “But we are going to be fine. We can hit with the best of them. We’ll be fine.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 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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