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Frosh fortify already-strong Phoenix

PHOENIX-- When a handful of freshmen hook on to a varsity high school team, coaches often wonder: Are they mentally ready to handle the challenge?

Phoenix High softball coach Rich Ficek isn't the least bit worried, however, that the new faces on his team can deal with whatever adversity comes their way.

They're the kind of kids who seem to thrive on pressure, Ficek says. They went to the national ASA tournament when they were 12 years old and they've been to a lot of other big tournaments.

They've had a lot of success and I know they're ready for this level of play.

The four fresh faces -- pitcher Tiffany Ross, shortstop Jennifer Dunlap and outfielders Jamie Escobar and Kelsey Russell -- join a solid nucleus of players that make the Pirates a title contender in the Skyline Conference.

The Pirates, who went 5-0 in the preseason and own victories over Ashland, South Medford and Yreka, Calif., open league play at Hagler-James Park today with a noon doubleheader against Rogue River.

And Ficek can't wait.

While the freshmen have already made their mark at the younger levels, they'll be enhancing rather than taking over a team already awash in talent.

Shortstop Michelle McEvoy, catcher Beth Nikodym and second baseman Jeanetta Hudnall all return as four-year varsity performers, and first baseman Sutton Jackson and center fielder Chelsea Clark return as starters.

Ficek also expects third baseman Courtney Lucas and outfielders Megan Capp and Kendra Kohler -- a transfer from Roseburg who thus far leads the Pirates in hitting with a .456 average -- to have productive seasons.

Kohler is also the Pirates' No. 2 pitcher.

We're solid on defense and we've got the best team speed we've ever had, says Ficek, now in his 11th season at the Pirate helm. Lucas, Hudnall, McEvoy, Kohler, Capp, Clarke -- all those girls have good wheels.

Ross, meanwhile, took over the No. — pitching duties from the moment practice began in early March. The 5-foot-10 freshman phenom has been dominant throughout the spring, registering all five of the Pirates' victories and throwing every inning.

I started working with her when she was 8 years old, Ficek says. It's been fun to watch her come up through the ranks and progress the way she has.

She's still only a freshman, but she's very tough mentally and mature beyond her years.

I know she's excited about playing on this team because she's never been around this much talent. We've only had one error in five games.

The Pirates are also a dedicated group bent on going the extra mile to win a league title. Many of the players are staying after practice to take a few more grounders and a few more swings of the bat.

No one is asking us to stay late -- it's just that we're committed to winning, Nikodym says. Everyone is just really excited about what this team is capable of accomplishing.

As long as everyone gets along, which we are right now, then there shouldn't be any problems. When one of us is having a bad day defensively or at the plate, everyone else is there to support them.

Ficek, whose teams have won a pair of Skyline titles and made the playoffs five times, says defending Skyline Conference champion Henley is still the team to beat.

Illinois Valley is also expected to contend and Ficek is warning his girls not to overlook Rogue River -- today's opponent -- as the Chieftains enter Skyline play with an unbeaten record of their own (4-0).

But no matter what happens, Ficek is having as much fun as his players.

I almost gave this up two years ago, but my wife (Polly) wouldn't let me, he says. She knew this team was going to be special.

From left, Phoenix High softball players Jeanetta Hudnall, Michelle McEvoy and Beth Nikodym return as four-year members of the varsity. - Photo by Bob Pennell