Last year’s fourth place trophy at the 4A state tournament was a long time coming for the Idaho Falls High School softball team.
It snapped a significant state softball trophy drought for the Tigers, who previously placed fourth in 2002, 2000 and 1997, and marked the best finish by a District 6 5A or 4A team at state softball since Hillcrest placed third in 4A in 2010. Contributing to that 24-8 overall record were nine juniors, and local coaches pinned Idaho Falls as an offensively loaded team to watch in 2019.
Now seniors, last year’s finish is giving them the drive to make a deeper postseason run this spring.
“It gives us more motivation to step up our game and win state this year,” said senior infielder Olivia Hillam.
Head coach Traci Wilkinson addressed that end goal earlier this year. She said the Tigers, 10-2 through Saturday, have targets on their backs due to winning a state trophy last year. In order to go further, there must be willingness to do more in practice and emphasize ‘we’ over ‘me.’
“How we played last year was good enough for fourth place at state,” Wilkinson recalled telling the Tigers. “If we want to take it farther, we have to work harder, keep our focus and come together as a team. They’re very talented and have great work ethic.”
The path to state this year will look considerably different than previous years, however. After two years of playing in 4A District 5-6 and having two automatic bids to the state tournament, Idaho Falls is now one of six 4A District 6 teams vying for 1.5 bids to state. The split of Districts 5 and 6 also means the departure of Pocatello, arguably Idaho Falls’ toughest conference opponent the last two seasons and winners of four consecutive district titles.
On one hand, there is some regret among the Tigers that Pocatello is no longer in the same conference.
“Honestly, I’m gonna miss them because they challenged us,” said senior pitcher and second baseman Jaidyn Clement. “They had really good players and they always showed up.”
On the other hand, the Tigers look forward to playing their fellow city school teams more than once and having the district championship wide open this year. They also acknowledged what is necessary to make a run in a district that went from two state seeds to 1.5.
“I think we have all the skills and talent,” said senior first baseman Kaitlin Moss. “We just need to put all our effort into practice.”
“We can’t overlook teams,” senior catcher Shaylee Robertson added.
For the moment, however, the district and state tournaments seem distant. Even as the ‘lasts’ continue to come and go, Hillam and Clement said they are still in disbelief this is their final season wearing Idaho Falls uniforms.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” Hillam said. “Senior night is gonna be a bawl fest.”
Wilkinson said senior night will be emotional for beyond the usual reasons. The Tigers will also be honoring outfielder Olivia Johnson, who died last June at age 17 in a vehicle crash east of Shelley. She is the inspiration behind the ‘Love Like Liv’ stickers seen on vehicles and water bottles among the Idaho Falls faithful.
“We should actually have nine seniors,” Wilkinson said. “I love them like my own daughters.”
According to the seniors, the feeling is mutual. Moss, Clement, Robertson and Hillam credited Idaho Falls softball’s progress, including two state tournament appearances in the past four seasons, to its coaches, whom they said make themselves readily available and inspire the Tigers to be better.
“These coaches have put in so much heart,” Clement said. “They just care. When you’re not doing very well, they talk to you so you can get out of your head.”
There is also a tight knit bond among the seniors that was years in the making. Several of them have been teammates since under-10 travel softball, and they consider themselves family now.
“We’ve played together for so long,” Robertson said. “If one of us is down, one of us will pick them up.”
Clement confirmed that observation, expressing gratitude for the Tigers being so welcoming upon her transfer from Hillcrest last year.
“They’ve really taken me in,” she said, receiving a side hug and a smile from Hillam.
Those bonds carry over into game day situations as well. Robertson said the Tigers tend to play well under pressure, a quality Wilkinson identified as a strength that can take them far this season.
“They always seem to get that focus, buckle down and end up pulling out the win,” Wilkinson said. “As long as they continue to buckle down and they stay focused, they have the chance to succeed.”