For the first time in program history, the Northwest High School softball team cannot play the role of underdog. Not after the Jaguars’ breakout 2017, during which they won their first-ever state title, snapping then five-time defending champion Sherwood’s 105-game win streak along the way. But Northwest, which returned all but three players from a year ago, isn’t resting on its laurels either.
“(We’re still approaching every game) the same as last year. We kind of want to stay in that same underdog mindset,” senior left fielder Kaylan King said. “We’re trying to beat everyone, and everyone is trying to beat us.”
While Coach Mike Horton admitted there is pressure for Northwest to stay at the top, most of it comes from increased depth across the county, rather than the team’s own goals and expectations. King said the Jaguars are focused only on what they can control, working hard and going as far as they can. For nearly a decade, Sherwood had been a largely unrivaled favorite, but Northwest’s accomplishment last spring has helped other teams across the county realize that postseason glory could be within reach.
A quick start to 2018—the Jaguars are 6-0 (as of Monday)—has helped Northwest settle in, Horton said. And the Jaguars haven’t been fazed by adversity, he added. Their confidence and composure have helped them dig themselves out of a hole twice already this season: in a 4-2 win over Montgomery 4A West rival Clarksburg on April 13 and en route to an 11-7 victory over Frederick County power Urbana on April 4.
We’re confident but not cocky,” King said. “Having too much of that sense of security can lead you to not taking threats seriously; we’re staying in that mindset where you have to play every game your hardest.”
It’s impossible to be competitive in fastpitch softball without a strong pitcher and Northwest is fortunate to have sophomore hurler Amber Yuille, who already has a year of varsity experience, and a state title, under her belt. But perhaps the Jaguars’ biggest strength is that they don’t have any blatant weaknesses for opponents to exploit. Northwest’s batting order, led by sophomore Shawnee Ronyak (.526 batting average), is strong from top to bottom. Five players, including senior Karlie Stanford and sophomores Megan Ridenour, Kaylah Qassis and Jayln Durand, are batting well over .400, with an additional two—King and classmate Chloe Hickman—just under.
Northwest’s stalwart defense provides Yuille with great support. Stanford is a virtual magnet at shortstop, flanked by Ridenour, who is already a second-year starter, at third. Despite her youth, Qassis at first base has been becoming an outspoken leader in the infield. And junior Alex Karamihas, who could spend some time in the pitcher’s circle as well, has proven her ability to play wherever she’s needed—currently holding down center field, she spent last year in the infield.
Northwest has all the tools to defend its state title, but the Jaguars know better than to look past any opponent.
“This year we’ve emphasized how we can’t really think of ourselves as state champions, even though we have that title,” Karamihas said. “We need to feel like we’re the underdogs because it pushes us to work harder, to feel like every game is a challenge and not think, ‘Oh, we’re state champions and we’re going to win.’ We need to keep that underdog mentality.”