October shoulder surgery slowed Kentlake fastpitch ace Felecia Harris.
But it didn’t stop her.
Instead, it transformed the arsenal of possibly the greatest power pitcher the South County has ever produced.
“(Surgery) kind of made me reinvent myself, but not really,” said Harris, who led the Falcons (20-4) into the Class 4A state tournament on Friday, where they played defending champion Shadle Park in the opening round (results unavailable). “Pitching is like riding a bike. You always remember how to do it. That’s what I thought to myself.
“But getting the strength and flexibility back was a big thing,” Harris continued. “I knew the mechanics to pitching, but couldn’t do them properly because my arm hurt when I did it.”
The last three months have been a grind for the University of Washington-bound Harris, who, after surgery, didn’t begin pitching again until February. There were outings when she struggled with her command and, unlike last season when she struck out a school record 364 batters, her heater understandably hasn’t quite possessed the same life.
Through it all, Harris never made excuses or gave in to the injury.
Instead, Kentlake pitching coach Dave Reynolds said, Harris became a complete pitcher this season – the type who can set up a batter with an offspeed pitch or roll over a changeup for a strike on a 3-2 count.
“She’s worked on hitting her spots more,” he said. “Before, she could rely on pure power and throw it by people. Now, she really has to focus on hitting those corners. Up and down, in and out.”
Harris did just that during last weekend’s West Central District III tournament, helping the Falcons win three of four games to snag the third seed to state. In the process, Kentlake’s senior ace delivered her finest performance of the season in the Falcons’ 6-0 state-clinching win over Graham-Kapowsin. Harris allowed just two hits and struck out 10 in a complete-game effort.
Harris entered Friday’s state opener with a 10-2 record this season and 89 strikeouts in 81 2/3 innings. Pretty heady stuff from a pitcher who didn’t start up again until February.
The performance — and Harris’ undeniable will to overcome last October’s shoulder surgery — hasn’t been lost on Kentlake coach Greg Kaas.
“She started really pitching in February. Talk about going on the fly,” Kaas said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize that. She works as hard on her craft as anybody … and she didn’t even have an offseason. It was, ‘Hey, here’s your uniform, you’re pitching in two weeks.’”
And while Harris isn’t quite yet at 100 percent (she estimates 80), there’s no denying the Kentlake star finally is hitting her stride.
“My arm is feeling a lot batter,” said Harris, who remained just as dominant at the plate, where she led the SPSL North in home runs this season with five and was named the Player of the Year for a second time. “At the beginning of the season, I’d get tired really easily. Now, I can last longer. I think it’s ready to go for state.”
ON A ROLL
Kentlake baseball coach Jason Evans first saw sophomores Zach Wright and Doug Christie when they were in Little League.
Even then, Evans had a pretty good idea how good the two right-handers could be. But did Evans realize they were good enough to help the Falcons reach the state’s Final Four for the first time in school history?
“No,” Evans said flatly all the while grinning from ear to ear. “I have coached against both of those kids since Little League. They’ve always been standouts and something special.”
Special indeed. Christie entered Friday’s Class 4A state semifinal against Richland at Safeco Field (results unavailable) with a 4-3 overall record and a 3.75 ERA. The mild-mannered Wright has been equally impressive, entering the day with a 3.54 season ERA and a perfect 4-0 record.
“They’re seniors in sophomore bodies. That’s all they are,” Evans said after Kentlake knocked off Bothell, 23-2, to earn the semifinal berth. “They pitch as well as seniors, and the next two years are going to be scary. They’re going to shut people down.”
Which is something opponents haven’t been able to do against the Kentlake offense all season. After missing the South Puget Sound League tournament by a single victory last spring, the Falcons entered this year with a bit of a chip on their shoulders.
And it didn’t take long for Evans to see a difference between last year’s bunch that never got over the hump and this year’s team, which has been on an unstoppable roll since opening nonleague play with an 11-0 rout of Kennedy on March 8.
But the transition from SPSL playoff challenger to one of the state’s heavyweights came against Jefferson on March 25, Evans said.
Down 2-0 in the top of the sixth, Kentlake catcher Marcus Evans launched a two-run, game-tying home run. One inning later, center fielder Andy Enders secured the victory with a solo home run.
“The umpire wanted to call the game because he said it was getting too dark,” the Kentlake coach recalled. “It was 2-2 in the seventh inning of our first league game. The field was in good condition, he just said it was starting to get dark. Both of us coaches went up and said, ‘Hey, just one more inning.’”
Kentlake has won 14 of 17 since.
“From there, it just steamrolled,” Jason Evans said.
GOIN’ FOR MILES
When the Class 4A state track meet opened Friday at Edgar Brown Stadium in Pasco, there was no question whom Tahoma star distance runner Jonothan Lafler was gunning for: Gig Harbor senior Miles Unterreiner.
“He’s a pretty nice guy … I don’t have any grudges against him,” said Lafler, who is making his fourth and final trip to the state meet and will run on scholarship at Washington State University next fall. “I just want to beat him one of these times.”
Indeed. Lafler has spent the better part of the last two years chasing his Gig Harbor rival. Matter of fact, Lafler spent last weekend’s district meet trying to catch the Tides’ star. Unterreiner won the 1,600 with a time of 4:13.08 and the 3,200 in 9:14.35.
And Lafler? He settled for third in the 1,600 (4:23.38) and fourth in the 3,200 (9:29.06).
“I went out too hard in the mile with Miles,” lamented Lafler, who was named Tahoma High’s Athlete of the Year earlier this week. “I haven’t raced in a while. We didn’t go to any big invites and we’ve just focused on the state meet.”
Added Tahoma coach Gary Conner, “That was Jono’s first race of the year where there’s competition and he got caught up in the moment and he just wanted to run against Miles. He just went out too hard.
“It was kind of a rookie mistake.”
Now, Lafler’s down to his last chance to catch the speedy Gig Harbor star.
And Lafler’s plenty capable of getting it done, Conner noted.
“It’s his if he wants it,” he said.
COTTON’S GOOD PLAN
Dan Cotton’s tennis trek hasn’t been the easiest one. But this weekend, he’s capping his career at Tahoma with a trek south to Vancouver for the Class 4A state tournament.
Cotton qualified on May 14 when he won his first two matches at West Central District. The going got tougher after that, as he fell to defending district and state champion Max Manthou of Kentwood in the semis, and then to Scott Sullivan of Puyallup in the match for third and fifth place.
But the deal was sealed.
“We thought Dan had a chance for the sixth spot,” Tahoma coach Dave Reynoldson said after Cotton had done even better than that. “He beat the people he had to beat.”
Cotton qualified for district in doubles in the fall of his sophomore year, but then tore his ACL that winter while playing tennis, and was unable to play in district the following spring. Last year, he went in doubles with now-graduated Trenton Butt, but they were eliminated in two straight.
“This year, he wanted to go singles and try it out,” Reynoldson said, adding that to his knowledge, Tahoma hasn’t had a state tennis qualifier since the late 1980s.
Good plan, as it turned out.
“It feels amazing,” Cotton said. “This has been my goal for two years. I wanted to get to state at least as a senior.”
Reynoldson has seen Cotton’s game grow significantly.
“He hit’s the ball way harder, and his second serve is way better,” Reynoldson said. “He got a new racket, and it has a different kind of power to it. He’s hitting with a lot more confidence, and he’s just having fun.”