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Willard living the dream with recent no-hitters

Katelyn Willard is like most of her friends, she’s just happy to be out doing what she loves these days.

The fact that she is able to compete, though, is a remarkable feat in itself, and her results this summer and fall have been staggering.

The Cascade Christian senior pitcher is coming off an incredible showing that included a pair of no-hitters — inches away from one perfect game — and yet another tournament title for a group of girls from various schools who have come together to make up for lost time this past spring.

“We’re just working hard because we know we didn’t get a season last time,” said the 17-year-old standout, “so it’s meant a lot to be able to go out there and do what we love the most.”

For Willard, that’s no small task.

Entering her junior year, the multi-sport athlete suffered a broken pitching hand that has since turned into a daily nuisance.

“I have had really bad tendinitis, and when I broke it, it made my fingers kind of crooked and caused more issues,” she said.

Similar to the side effects of thoracic outlet syndrome, as she discovered through her hand surgeon, Willard deals with nerves that struggle to work properly in her hand and overextended use creates swelling and considerable pain. She’s currently in physical therapy to help alleviate the ongoing issue.

“It gets pretty swollen when I’m pitching and stuff, so they’re trying to figure that out and trying to cut down some of the pain so I’m able to pitch multiple games and do more stuff in practice,” said Willard. “When I’m out there and going, the first game isn’t too bad but then if I have to do another game it gets pretty bad.”

So bad, in fact, she’s taken to writing left-handed while at school to thwart any extra abuse.

“Actually it looks the same exactly as my right hand, it just takes a little longer,” Willard said with a laugh. “All my teachers know and they’re cool with it, so it’s OK.”

Don’t cry for Willard, however. You probably need to save those emotions for the unwitting batters who have to face her inside the circle.

One of the top Class 3A pitchers in the state since she took over as a freshman at Cascade Christian, Willard recently authored a pretty imposing effort during 18A tournament play in Newberg.

The 5-foot-7 pitcher posted a 3-0 record as the Challengers went 5-0 overall, coming on in relief in a fourth game. In that span, she didn’t allow a single earned run — two unearned runs did cross the plate — and allowed only two hits overall with 16 strikeouts, three walks and one fateful hit batter that later proved to be quite an irritant since it cost her a perfect game.

“I was so close,” she said, pondering what might have been. “Somebody was crowded over the plate and the ball nicked her elbow. Everybody thought it hit the bat but the umpire said it hit her elbow or hand or whatever and got to take her base.”

It proved to be the only baserunner in that game against Willard, but she had no idea that would be the case at the time.

“I was kind of upset but it was the third inning when that happened so I wasn’t really thinking, oh, I’ve had a perfect game and that’s what ends it,” Willard recalled. “It was just, oh well, whatever, but then once it got to the end of the game I was like, are you kidding me? I was kind of mad but I was still happy that we won and it was still a no-hitter, so that was cool.”

For good measure, Willard also wielded a big bat to help boost her team, batting .400 with three doubles, six runs and nine RBIs.

None of this has really been anything new since Willard and a few other girls from Cascade Christian were joined by some players from Eagle Point, Ashland, Phoenix, Hidden Valley, Grants Pass and Yreka this summer. The Challengers now boast a 27-5 record and have won all but one tournament they’ve played in thus far.

“We have a solid chemistry and solid defense, and our bats have looked so great and that’s been really nice to give me that break between innings,” said Willard. “That’s helped a lot. We’ll get a bunch of runs and then I’ll go in and pitch and with all the adrenaline and everything that’s going on, I’ll smoke it past them. If they do make contact with the ball I know my defense will be there to get it for me so it’s just been really cool.”

Willard has seen her velocity reach 60 miles per hour even with her hand issues.

“I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get up to 62 and kind of stay 60 to 62 consistently,” she said. “I just need to keep strengthening and keep doing my exercises and hopefully that’s the goal to get to that speed.”

To complement her fastball, Willard has seen good results from her drop ball and curveball thus far, and had a lot of fun with her changeup.

“When I get my changeup going, that’s a really good one, too,” she said of her arsenal of pitches. “It makes the batters look kinda silly. That’s my favorite thing when I’m pitching.”

Earlier this summer, Willard earned her position on the Fastpitch Oregon all-star team and subsequently also gained recognition when she was selected to the Fastpitch Northwest all-star team. A trip to Las Vegas was in the making after that August honor but the ensuing championships were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I kind of guessed it was going to get canceled so I wasn’t expecting it to happen,” she said, “but it was still kind of a bummer. Still, making the Northwest team was really cool.”

Given all her hand issues, one would question why Willard continues to keep at it when it comes to softball. She played volleyball as a freshman and has been on the cross-country and basketball teams each year at Cascade Christian.

She’s even considering trying her hand at soccer due to the extraordinary circumstances that have led to all of the official Oregon School Activities Association seasons being moved to 2021.

“A lot of people have asked me that but I just love it so much and I love being with my teammates and everything,” said Willard, who also boasts a 3.87 grade-point average. “I just love the whole experience so honestly it’s all worth it.”

It’s also been made a little more sweet these days after already knowing what it’s like to have softball taken away from her this past spring when the pandemic forced a cancellation of all high school sports for the school year.

“I’m just super thankful because I know some people still don’t have the opportunity to be able to play,” said Willard. “I just never take that for granted anymore like we used to because you never know if there’s going to be another season or if you’re going to be able to play. Whenever I have an opportunity, I make sure I use it well and work my hardest. I’m just always super thankful now when I do have an opportunity to play.”

Have a story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Katelyn Willard throws a pitch warming up for practice Wednesday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Katelyn Willard pitched a pair of no-hitters, including a near perfect game, this past weekend to help her Cascade Christian team improve to 27-5 on the 18A softball circuit.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune