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Meilicke powers Challengers in 3A opener

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Katelyn Willard’s first pitch in Wednesday’s Class 3A softball state playoff opener against Blanchet Catholic did not look good — bouncing well short of the plate and way outside.

But the Cascade Christian sophomore hurler overcame nerves and a tired pitching shoulder and Mallory Meilicke supplied a powerful bat to propel the Challengers past the PacWest Conference No. 3 team, 6-4, at U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Third-seeded Cascade Christian (20-8) advances to a quarterfinal round matchup with Taft on Friday at U.S. Cellular. Taft (18-8), the No. 6 seed, defeated Vale 11-1 in five innings and also owns a 12-11 win over the Challengers that came March 25 during the North Medford Spring Break Invitational.

Willard, who has pitched in all 28 games, has tried to rest her arm as much as possible between getting treatments five days a week.

“I hurt my shoulder by overuse and I’ve been limited in practice,” said Willard of the possible reason for her off-the-mark first offering. “Once my nerves calmed down, I was feeling more confident and I was more in command.”

Despite striking out two, Willard surrendered one hit and an unearned run in the top of the first inning. She also issued a walk and hit a batter and had to get out of a bases-loaded jam.

Then the Challengers answered back in a big way.

Audrey Quast opened the bottom of the frame for the Challengers by laying down a bunt. Cavalier pitcher Savannah Barchus fielded the roller but first baseman Hailey Ostby couldn’t handle the throw and Quast got to second on the error. Mia Mayben followed with a four-pitch walk and Willard was hit by a pitch to load the bases.

After taking a called strike, Meilicke hit a no-doubter, a towering fly over the 210-foot fence marker in right-center field for a grand slam. It was Meilicke’s third homer of the year.

“I like to watch the first pitch most of the time,” explained Meilicke. “I put myself in the mindset that I was going to crush the next pitch. I knew right away when I hit it. It was great to get everyone pumped up.”

And the Challengers weren’t quite through in the first.

Kara Palmer laced her first pitch from Barchus into the right-center alley for a double. Palmer moved to third on Rebecca Clark’s groundout and scored what proved to be the winning run on a groundout by Neha Knight.

After 13th-seeded Blanchet (11-12) cut the lead to 5-2 in the third inning, Meilicke provided another big hit. The senior first baseman, who is batting .489, made solid contact and hit a high fly that went over the head of right fielder Katie Tutle for a triple. One out later, Meilicke scored on Clark’s sacrifice fly.

“Meilicke has come through for us all year,” said Cascade Christian third-year coach Keith Willard, Katelyn’s father. “She’s very powerful and has a lot of confidence.”

The Salem school made the game closer by scoring two runs in the sixth. Ally Jones led off with a triple and Willard issued a two-out walk to No. 9 hitter Khari Ruiz. Barchus followed with a line drive, two-run double.

Willard finished the game by retiring Blanchet in order in the seventh. She struck out six, walked two, hit two batters and gave up five hits.

“I made the pitches I needed to and my team backed me up in the field,” said Willard, who admitted she’s had to make adjustments with the hurt shoulder.

Mayben, a senior who missed a majority of the Challengers’ season with an injury, made a couple of key defensive plays at second base and had two hits.

“We all played with a lot of heart,” said Mayben, who returned to the lineup about three weeks ago. “We knew Katelyn was hurting so we gave it up for her.”

Coach Willard said his daughter got a slow start to the season from a wrist injury in basketball.

“She’s thrown every game for us this year,” said the Challenger coach. “She hasn’t been able to work on pitching in practice. And her velocity is down to 55 to 56 miles per hour from 59-60.”

“She’s a gamer,” added coach Willard. “Her attitude is to just get it done.”

Meilicke said the Challengers had a team meeting Tuesday to address the four-game losing streak entering the playoffs.

“The girls sat down and connected,” said Meilicke. “We talked through things and said we had to put something together.”

And Meilicke certainly did that.

Blanchet Catholic1010020—451

Cascade Christian501000x—651

Barchus and Jensen; Willard and Modrell. W — Willard (20-8). L — Barchus. 2B — B: Barchus; CC: Palmer. 3B — B: Jones; CC: Meilicke. HR — CC: Meilicke (3).

Reach reporter Frank Silow at 541-776-4480 or fsilow@rosebudmedia.com

Members of the Cascade softball team mob Mallory Meilicke after she is the fourth runner in to score during the first inning of the playoff game against Blanchet Catholic. Photo by Denise Baratta
Katelyn Willard of Cascade Christian pitches against Blanchet Catholic. Photo by Denise Baratta