One year removed from its historical state title run, the Northwest High School softball team managed the weight of expectations—and the pressure of having a target on its back—remarkably well this spring. But as the Jaguars (18-3) sat waiting—mostly in separate cars—for nearly three hours as torrential downpours, thunder and lightning continually delayed the start of their second consecutive state final appearance, the magnitude of the event, and the notion of competing for a second straight championship, began to sink in.
“The more we waited there, the more nervous we got,” Coach Mike Horton said.
Those nerves were quite apparent when Northwest did finally take the field against Anne Arundel County’s Severna Park in an error-riddled 13-0, five-inning defeat. Everyone, with the exception of sophomore catcher Jalyn Durand, had at least one error, as Northwest compiled more fielding mistakes in one game—reaching double digits—than the entire season combined. And to beat a team of Severna Park’s caliber—senior pitcher Marissa Heuer only allowed 16 runs all season and none in the postseason—the Jaguars knew they were going to have to play nearly flawless softball.
“Severna Park was no joke,” Horton said. “They have an (NCAA Division I) shortstop; their whole team from top to bottom, eight of them play travel ball all year together and three or four of them play at an even higher level, so I knew it was going to be tough. But it shouldn’t have been that ugly … once the errors started coming, became contagious and the pressure mounted.”
Despite the disappointing final result, Northwest can reflect on another successful season in which they proved themselves to be a mainstay in Montgomery County’s and the state’s upper echelon. And though the Jaguars will have a few holes to fill with the graduation of three starters—four-year shortstop Karlie Stanford, Kaylan King and Chloe Hickman—Northwest will benefit from the return of a largely talented core next spring, including sophomore pitcher-catcher duo Amber Yuille and Durand and classmates Kaylah Qassis and Megan Ridenour, as well as versatile junior Alex Karamihas.
“You look at even the Severna Park pitcher, who is a senior, that’s three years she didn’t even make it to states and Amber has now pitched in two state finals and still has two years to go. … I told the girls, just getting back to the state final is a feat in itself,” Horton said. “There are 47 teams in Class 4A alone, so there are 45 other teams in our division who would’ve happily traded places with us. That’s pretty incredible.”
Yuille finished with 133 strikeouts en route to a 1.4 earned-run average. And though Northwest was able to muster only two hits in the state final, she was backed by deep batting order with no apparent weaknesses for opposing pitchers to hone in on. Led by Stanford, who batted .500 with 37 runs batted in and 28 runs scored, Hickman (.456, 31 RS, 17 RBI), Durand (.429, 20 RS, 15 RBI), Ridenour (.400, 21 RS), Qassis (28 RBI, 21 RS) and Karamihas (25 RS, 24 RBI), the Jaguars’ ability to produce on offense, from the top of the lineup all the way to the bottom, provided Yuille with the support and confidence to take more risks inside the circle.
“There’s something positive that’s going to come from this (loss),” Horton said. “I think now the girls got a taste of what it’s like on both sides now; this is going to be good for us. We’re going to take some good out of this whole experience.”