The Northwest High School softball team had already made history just three games into its 2017 campaign. On March 25 the Jaguars snapped then five-time reigning state champion Sherwood’s 105-game win streak by defeating the Warriors, 9-5.
But “there was a lot of chatter” around the county indicating the victory was a fluke, second-year Jaguars coach Mike Horton said, attributing the “anomaly” to Sherwood’s errors. And “the girls took that personally,” Horton added.
So, when the opportunity arose to prove what seniors Alexa Bowen and Emily Wiley said the Jaguars believed all along—that Northwest had the talent to upend the seemingly untouchable Sherwood—they took full advantage.
Northwest (19-2) defeated Sherwood (19-2) again, 8-4, on Saturday at the University of Maryland, College Park, to win its first-ever state championship and solidify its place in the record books.
“To beat (Sherwood) once is tough enough, but to beat them twice in the same season, that’s unheard of,” Horton said. “We didn’t let the name recognition beat us; we quit calling them Sherwood and just referred to them as, ‘the blue team.’ We knew if we played smart, solid softball, we could rattle them. And that’s what we did.”
The Jaguars’ historic run was completed one day after Northwest baseball claimed its first state title since 2012, and second overall, with a dominant 8-0 win over Howard at Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen. This spring marked the first Class 4A baseball-softball sweep in more than 20 years.
Perhaps most impressive about the softball team’s 2017 success was the Jaguars relied on a freshman in arguably the most important position—pitcher. In fact, there were three freshmen on the field Saturday, which bodes well for the Jaguars’ ability to build on this year’s success next spring.
Amber Yuille—whose older brother Michael allowed only two hits in six scoreless innings in Northwest baseball’s state final win—struck out four and allowed only three earned runs Saturday against one of the state’s most powerful lineups.
Her poise in the pitcher’s circle this entire season instilled confidence in her teammates, said Bowen, who played behind the plate and developed a special bond with Yuille. “I have never met a more confident pitcher in my life,” Bowen said. “I was amazed, especially since she’s a freshman, by her confidence. She never let herself get down, she was never fazed. … I definitely think it affected the team. When your pitcher is confident, I feel like the rest of the team is confident. She never let her guard down and never gave up, and that allowed us all to do the same.”
The elder Yuille, who also picked up the state semifinal victory, played an equally important role on the mound, this season, as Northwest baseball’s most consistent hurler. He also went 2-for-3 at the plate in the championship game.
Led by Bowen, junior shortstop Karlie Stanford and sophomore pitcher/infielder Alex Karamihas, who tallied two hits apiece, Northwest softball batted .429 against one of the toughest pitchers they’d faced all year.
Saturday’s milestone was a long time coming—Northwest has been pushing itself into the county’s upper echelon the past 10 years—and Wiley said the team especially wanted to win Saturday for all the players who came before them and helped make the possibility of winning a state championship into a reality.
The Jaguars made their first state tournament appearance in 2013 and reached the state final, falling to Sherwood, in 2015. But two years ago, Northwest still feared the Sherwood name.
“We came into that final still thinking Sherwood was unbeatable,” Wiley said. “But our attitude definitely changed. … Everyone played with so much passion, it was like every single person contributed.”
Similarly, it was an overall team effort, Northwest baseball coach Todd Varesco said, that propelled his Jaguars on Friday and all spring. From solid pitching, led by Yuille, Griffin Bubb and Dean Edmundson, to timely hitting, solid at-bats and great defense—including East Carolina recruit Josh Netterville’s sliding catch in centerfield and Ryan Kennington doubling up someone at home from right field, Friday—everything came together, especially the last stretch of the season.
“I was able to manage this team, but you can’t control what the kids do. I kind of just let them make their own destiny, and boy, they did,” Varesco said. “Especially after last year’s (first-round) loss to Kennedy, they really put their minds to it. … We graduate 12 players but the good part is we have a good program. We had 20 guys on junior varsity so we’ll reload and go back out and try and win another one.”