High School Sports

Eighth graders rescue River Ridge fastpitch team from low turnout numbers

Sequoia Mercado-Olin, Sarah House, Grace Goetsch and Ahtumn Tomkins have a chance to accomplish the rare high school feat of lettering five times in a sport.

The math isn’t off. As eighth-grade students at Nisqually Middle School, they’re beginning their high school fastpitch careers a year early.

Because of a player shortage, River Ridge turned to its feeder school to fill the void after six players turned out for the first day of practice March 2.

Fastpitch, like baseball, needs at least nine to fill a team. Up stepped the four girls, allowing the Hawks to field a team.

Crisis adverted, and a chance at some history begun.

Already, it’s been memorable in a positive way. The program’s senior class, led by shortstop Bri Attwood, hadn’t won a game in their high school careers until they beat Mount Tahoma, 26-1, this season.

Attwood, a four-year starter who will play at Bellevue College next season, welcomed her new teammates with open arms. Despite their ages — Mercado-Olin and House are 14, Goetsch and Tomkins are 13 — Attwood described the four as proven players.

“They know how to swing a bat,” Attwood said. “They know basics of softball ... the little things. I love it.”

Dipping into a middle school for players is a one-time thing, River Ridge athletic director Gary Larson said. The 2A SPSL approved the school’s request for a waiver to allow eighth-grade participation for 2015 because of the low numbers. With that hurdle cleared, the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association OK’d it as well, Larson said.

“The WIAA would not have entertained it without league approval,” he said.

Larson said other options were looked at, including a combined River Ridge-Timberline team. That idea didn’t sit well with Attwood.

While she did everything in her power to recruit among the school’s hallways to field enough players — “I even cried one day because I thought I’m not going to have a team for my senior year,” she said — wearing a uniform of another school wasn’t appealing.

“It’s a pride thing,” Attwood said.

Since the four joined, other high school players trickled in. Coach Marty Harvey said he has 21 players now, meaning there’s enough players to form a junior-varsity team.

“We’ve been beating the drum trying to get kids out here,” said Harvey, whose daughter, Alexa, was on River Ridge’s last state-bound team in 2008. “It’s the only way I can build a program.”

Half the players don’t have prior fastpitch experience, Harvey noted, but goals for his first season are lofty. The mission for River Ridge (4-2 overall, 2-1 in SPSL) is getting into the district playoffs.

The eighth-graders said they had reservations and nerves at first, but without hesitation they agree it was a good decision to make the move up to high school fastpitch.

Acceptance from their older teammates, they say, was instant. It helped that Goetsch and Tomkins each have sisters — Abigail Goetsch (sophomore) and Hailey Tomkins (freshman) — on the team.

“I’ve been playing for a long time, and know a lot of the girls on the team,” said Grace Goetsch, a utility player. “It’s like playing with old teammates and it gets me close to the high school.”

Mercado-Olin, a pitcher, was torn between leaving her recreational team and playing for River Ridge. But the chance to play with — and against — older players at the high school level convinced her to do it.

“I take it seriously,” she said. “When you get older, it’s more about winning, more about playing the game and doing it right. ... people who take it seriously and people who have the same passion as I do.”

Flexibility from both sides has made the process work. For instance, school release times (2 p.m. for River Ridge, 3:50 p.m. for Nisqually) make for tricky practices. That means missing up to an hour as practice starts at 3 p.m.

“We’re still getting everything done,” said Ahtumn Tomkins, an infielder.

For away games, Larson picks up the eighth graders from Nisqually in order to make the bus in time, while transportation to practices comes from the girls’ parents.

House, an outfielder who began playing fastpitch two years ago as a sixth grader, has seen the team’s vast improvements over the short weeks since joining the team.

“The new coaches have really worked with us a lot to make us better,” House said.