It’s hard to take your eyes off Yelm High School’s offensive statistics:
Ten of the 13 softball players on the Tornado varsity are hitting at least .400 through 11 games. Four of them – Taylor Gubser, Ashli Polzin, Ashlyn Aven and Cydney Jarvis – are hitting .500 or better.
But the key to Yelm’s chances of making a fourth consecutive trip to the Class 3A state tournament, where the Tornados finished second and third the past two season, is replacing the Olympian’s 2018 All-Area player of the year, Drea Schwaier.
A right-handed pitcher, Schwaier posted a 1.03 earned run average with 213 strikeouts last year. She’s gone on to become one of twin aces at Whitworth University, going 13-3 with a 2.32 ERA in 17 starts for the Pirates.
But Yelm hasn’t skipped a beat as the complementary tandem of senior right-hander Tayelyn Cutler and junior lefty Hailey Brown have filled in admirably in a 10-1 start. The Tornados are atop the 3A South Sound Conference standings at 6-0 after a come-from-behind walk-off win over their closest pursuer, Gig Harbor last week.
“They’re my go-tos right now. They’re veterans who’ve been doing this a long time,” said 14th-year Yelm coach Lindsay Walton. “The team has confidence in them. If one is off, the other will come in and pick her up.”
The hard-throwing Cutler, who made the one start in last year’s state tournament run Schwaier didn’t, is 5-0 with a 2.44 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 29 innings.
“She brings the heat,” said Walton. “She blows it by batters. She’s not afraid to throw high and inside to make the batter a little nervous.”
Cutler, bound for Centralia College next year, said the goal is to make the batter uncomfortable.
“Scouts usually notice how hard I throw and that I’ve got a good rise ball,” she said. “I’m aggressive. I’ll have my game face on. I want to strike people out.”
Brown is more of a finesse pitcher, relying on movement and change of speeds to build a 3-0 mark so far with a minuscule 0.68 ERA. She strikes out far fewer batters than Cutler, 21 in 20 innings.
Their contrasting styles make a mid-game change a challenge for other teams to adjust to.
“Tayelyn and I balance each other out really well,” said Brown. “We trust each other and always have each other’s back.”
Interestingly, neither felt frustration having to sit behind workhorse Schwaier until they were upperclassmen. Brown started playing at age 5 and Cutler at 9. They’ve always played with many of the girls who are now their high school teammates.
“It was one of the coolest things to watch Drea pitch,” said Brown, who has continued to do so on Whitworth’s internet web streams. “I played with her for a long time. It was great to see her grow up and do the things she did in high school and now in college.”
Cutler sees a natural progression with her taking the ball from Schwaier and sharing it with Brown, who’ll pass it down to younger players after she graduates.
Though Yelm hasn’t won the big trophy at state during its recent run, the Tornados do have a 10-4 record in games played in the tournament during the past three years. Walton has seen her team turn into an ongoing program expecting success.
“We’ve got the right coaches and players who buy into the idea that we’re a family. That if someone isn’t doing well, someone else is going to pick them up,” she said.
Early each season, Ryan Healy, a character development teacher at Ridgeline Middle School in Yelm and Educational Services District 113 2019 teacher of the year, comes to a team bonding dinner.
“He talks about what character looks like,” Walton said. “Getting the right chemistry dictates what direction a team can go. You can’t have any drama.”
The dinner is one of the things Yelm’s players have bought into.
“We learn so much about each other in just one night,” said Brown. “We realize we’re all doing what we love and all have such a talent for.”
With their impressive batting averages and strong pitching staff, Cutler thinks taking the team’s bonds just a bit further might help them reach that elusive state title next month.
“We definitely need a little more intensity in the dugout, a little more talking to each other on the field,” she said. “When you look at (2017 and 2018 3A champions) Redmond and Bonney Lake, they really communicate well.”