Home, Sweet Home: An In-Depth Look Into Some Of The Young Women Leading Husky Softball

Sweet Home is what I would call your typical rural, agricultural town: Country music, camouflage, pickup trucks, conservative….just a prideful, quiet, tight-knit small town where everyone knows each other, where farming and agriculture reign supreme, and home to the Sweet Home Huskies. The Sweet Home Huskies are coming off back to back 4A quarterfinals appearances, falling both years on the road against Philomath/Alsea and La Grande. In 2020, the Huskies look to overcome the hurdle and make it deeper in the playoffs. With the season on hiatus, Elite Oregon Girls talked with Sweet Home’s Ashtyn Walker, Jasmine Carter, Brooke Burke, Graci Zanona, Bailee Hartsook, and Emily Brown, a handful of young ladies who opened up about their softball experiences, where we covered ground all the way from the beginning all the way to the new decade….

The Stomping Grounds

Every great athlete from Cat Osterman to Katie Ledecky is a novice at some point, especially when they first learn the sport they have seemingly mastered. These ladies are no exception, as they all fall on a spectrum of starting points. For Hartsook, Burke, Walker and Brown, the journey began very early on in life. Freshman Brooke Burke started when she was four years old, “I would play at the Hawthorne fields before they turned into baseball fields. My mom was the coach and I was playing and my favorite thing as a little kid was sliding.” Further, Brooke explains a lasting imprint on her softball career, “My grandfather played and I think that along with the competitiveness of the game is what kept me in it,” Burke explained, “my grandpa was a really good player when he was younger. That’s why I’m always #2 or #4, it’s for him.” Senior Ashtyn Walker attributes her successes to her mother and grandfather as well, two significant influences in her life, “I started playing softball as soon as I could, and my grandpa was a huge part of the reason that I started. My mom was a very talented softball player, and my grandpa was her coach, so that sort of carried on to me. I grew up learning from my grandpa, he’s been a huge part of my softball career, and he’s pushed me to be the player I am today.”

Bailee Hartsook got her start with the Boys and Girls Club at six years old, “I started at the Boys and Girls Club of Sweet Home at six, then I started playing travel ball in Lebanon at eight years old.” Junior Emily Brown has a special, unique connection to Sweet Home softball via family history: “I’ve been playing softball ever since I was super little, my mom was on Sweet Home’s very first high school softball team and both of my sisters played. Ever since I was about eight, my summers all consisted of either playing or watching softball. The softball field quickly became a huge happy place for me, and as soon as I step onto the field, all of my other stresses in life disappear.” Senior Jasmine Carter and Junior Graci Zanona got their starts a bit later, with Carter starting in the fifth grade, while Zanona observed her sister playing and wanted in on it. However, the two had different reasons why they were attracted to it, with Carter’s observations bringing her into it, “My attraction was my teammates constantly talking about traveling to different towns for a tournament, my parents dreamed of having a daughter that would play a sport and friends talking about the joy it gave to them.” Zanona’s had to do with her father, “My dad really got me hooked on the game, and he’s been my biggest contributor,” Zanona said, “he loves analyzing the game like I do, and he always took me to camps and lessons so I could be the best player possible.”

Credit: Sweet Home News

Softball is a sport of many roles, with your role differentiating depending on your position, spot in the hitting order, and other factors. For some players, like Carter, Walker, and Zanona, they specialize in certain positions. Walker has always been a pitcher, “Throughout my whole softball career I’ve always pitched. That’s been my main position ever since I learned to throw a ball, and I spent countless hours with pitching coaches and throwing to my grandpa. As I continued to get older my roles changed. I still pitched, but I experienced new positions,” Walker told me, “Throughout high school I’ve played short, first, pitched, and played outfield, but right now I’m currently pitching and playing center field.” For Zanona, she’s always been behind the dish with a chip on her shoulder, “I’ve always been a catcher, and while I’m on the smaller side of being a catcher, I wanted to prove to everyone that it was my position and I have,” Zanona said, “I’ve been catching on varsity ever since I was a freshman.”

Carter has always been an outfielder, “I was always a fan for the outfield. I enjoyed the adrenaline running to a fly ball because you never know if you’ll make it to the ball before it hits the ground,” Carter said, “I currently play right field and have an amazing outfield to back me up. I had an injury last year after season and tore my MCL which has made this season harder. That is just something that I have to push through and help me get to where I was before or even better.” Hartsook has bounced around in different spots before ending up where she is now, “I was short and skinny, but I was one of the few that could catch a ball, so my coach played me at first base and catcher,” Hartsook explained, “Now that I’m a lot taller and stronger, I play shortstop and bat fifth to be the “clean up” and drive the runners in.” Brown and Burke are players who can play just about everywhere. “I am a fairly universal player. I’ve played outfield, second, shortstop and third, and this season I would’ve been playing second,” Brown said, “but I’ve learned that my favorite position on the field and in the lineup is wherever coach puts me.” Burke has a similar approach, “Growing up in 10U ball, I was always a shortstop and I usually hit at the top of the order, but I would mainly bunt. I learned how to slap after going to a hitting coach so that really helped and got my confidence up. Now on Junior Varsity, I’m a shortstop and on varsity I’m there for any position. I don’t care as long as I get to learn from all the great players.”

The Husky Culture

Every player or coach I’ve ever interviewed has some sort of tradition or ritual that they do either as a team or individually. I asked the Huskies about their traditions, and they were more than open to giving an inside look into those rituals. Emily Brown talks about the team pregame ritual, “Before every game we always listen to International Harvester and play hacky sack. It’s just something that pumps the whole team up and gets up ready to play hard.” Brown also revealed a tradition with her best friend Jasmine Carter, “Typically while the coaches and umpires are talking before games, my best friend and teammate, Jasmine Carter and I always pray,” Brown explains, “Her dad was also like a father to me, and he passed away a couple of years ago, so him not being able to be there and watch her play has been super tough. I talk to him while we’re praying so that she knows he’s still there and he’s still cheering her on.” Carter also touched on the team traditions, “Before every game, we sing our hearts out no matter where we’re playing. Each game we play “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan. That’s just who we are. We have fun while playing the game, and we also play a game of hacky sack right before each home game, which brings us closer to one another.”

Credit: Sweet Home Softball

Brooke Burke revealed a personal ritual of hers for game day, “I only drink water on game days and nothing else.” She also has a hitting routine, “Every time I go up to the plate I have a routine. I have to touch the plate, hit my heels on each shoe, measure my bat across the plate, and then get my helmet comfortable.” Bailee Hartsook talked about the Sweet Home country tradition, “As a ritual, we all play hacky sack in front of the dugout after we’re done doing each others hair,” Hartsook said, “We blast our country music, and while we all sing, the crowd joins in and even the opposing team sometimes.” Ashtyn Walker touched on why they play “International Harvester”, “Before every game, we play International Harvester and all of us get pumped up,” Walker said, “That was the song that gets us all going. We also play hacky sack, which also gets us pumped up.” Graci Zanona notes that despite it being a ritual, it doesn’t mean they’re expert hacky sackers….”My favorite pregame ritual is playing hacky sack, but we aren’t necessarily the best at it,” Zanona explains, “it’s just a good time to get all of the nerves out before the game.”

The past two years, Sweet Home has advanced to the state quarterfinals, but hit road hurdles in La Grande and Philomath. With the team loaded with senior experience, they are ready for a better crack at the state title in 2020. Despite her torn MCL, Carter still did what she could in the offseason, “I wasn’t able to do much in the off-season due to my injury but I still threw when I could and tried running to get my knee up and going,” Carter said, “I believe that we can get pass the quarterfinals. We have a great group of girls that have been playing since T-ball and know the game. Our team is so close and everything runs smooth, we just have to keep our head in the game and continue to push ourselves each play.” Hartsook went through the Husky offseason training, “Before our season starts, we start to prepare and don’t take it easy. Our pitchers and catchers start their training in early December, and the others are hitting in the gym to get their reps in,” Hartsook said, “Personally, I think this team could accomplish anything we want to do, but everyone has to be onboard and willing to risk it all….all the time.” Zanona shared Hartsook’s sentiments, “Pitchers and catchers got a jump on this season. We started our workouts early so we could show our team that we want it just as badly as they do,” Zanona explained, “We have unfinished business and it’s in the back of our heads knowing that we are right there.”

Credit: Sweet Home News

Walker expressed a passionate response on her offseason improvement, “In the offseason I’ve been working my butt of to become a better pitcher, not only for myself, but for my team. If you have the chance to throw, don’t get lazy. That’s what I always say. I believe my team has the potential to do bigger and better things than what we did last year. We worked too hard last year, and honestly the game we lost against La Grande we should’ve had that game, that was ours.” Brown has also been pushing it over the offseason, “During the offseason I run a lot. Base running is honestly my favorite part about the game so for me it’s important to always stay in good running shape. I also attend the open gyms on Sundays to work hard on batting,” Brown said, “Being in the quarterfinals the last two years and not coming home with a big win was definitely difficult. I do believe that my team could make it all the way to the last game. We’re all focused and competitive enough to win.”

Special Relationships and Memories

Sweet Home Softball Coach Karyn Hartsook shares very strong, special relationships with her athletes. She has had the opportunity to coach most of them for a long time, so I asked the girls about their relationships with Coach Hartsook, and they responded with vibrant responses. For Ashtyn Walker, the relationship started early, “I’ve played for Karyn since I was super little, we’ve always been close. She has made me a better player every season I’ve spent with her. The determination and the way she believes in her players is awesome, and I’m glad I’ve had her as my coach throughout all these years. She wants us to be better, and she continues to push us to be better.” Jasmine Carter had plenty of sentiment for her Coach as well, “Coach Hartsook has made me a better softball player, she pushes us to do our best and never gets down on us. She knows what we’re capable of and believes in what we’re worth, and she enjoys the game just as much as we do. I believe that she is the reason that I am where I am. Each practice we condition to get us stronger as an individual, more than just a team, and I enjoy getting pushed to do my best because I know that she has hope in me.” Emily Brown also looks to Coach Hartsook as a mother, “Coach Hartsook is like another mother to me, she’s always so supportive of her girls on and off the field. One big thing that I have learned from her is to never give up and don’t have any regrets. Her positive and accepting attitude makes me wanna be the best version of myself that I could possibly be.”

Graci Zanona has learned to do what she can do, “I’ve learned from Coach Hartsook to trust the process and understand it doesn’t happen overnight,” Zanona said, “Control the controllable. When I’m catching, if I don’t get a certain call, I’ve learned to just shake it off and get the next call for my pitcher.” Zanona has another coaching connection, with her father Michael serving as an assistant, “My dad is an assistant coach, so before every game we have a pregame hug and talk about how to get the job done every game.” Finally, Bailee Hartsook gets to have the ever interesting perspective of being the coach’s daughter, and she gave insight into the pressure behind it, “Ever since my first year of softball, my Mom has always been a coach of mine. When she coaches, she pushes me ten times as hard, always expects me to be #1 at everything and at the top of my game.” Regardless, Hartsook says that softball is a relationship builder, “I think softball season really helps build our relationship as mother and daughter, it has never brought us down,” Hartsook explains, “Ever since we were young, she always told us to control our attitudes and reactions. I think this has helped everyone she has ever coached or told, both inside and outside of softball.”

Credit: Sweet Home Softball

Bouncing off their personal relationships with Coach Hartsook, I asked the girls to recount their favorite memories as Huskies, and they provided a wide range of answers. Brown chose a deep, emotional memory, “If I had to choose one, I’d choose our trip to Utah and Colorado. That season I was struggling with my hitting but when we got to Utah something clicked and I hit really well. The whole team spent two weeks together in hotel rooms and at softball complexes. There were tons of laughs and a few tears. Sometimes I wish we could all go back to those two weeks just so we could all be together again.” Hartsook went back to last season in La Grande, “One of my best memories was when we traveled to La Grande. When we got there, their players acted like they were going to walk all over us, which instantly infuriated us,” Hartsook said, “I got injured earlier in the season, and I was out for the year. Seeing their players affect my teammates so much and not being able to do anything killed me, and although we still lost the game, we stayed strong and never gave up.” Brooke Burke talked about an achievement against Sisters in girls basketball, “My favorite moment was probably getting out first league win against Sisters in 10 years, that was so amazing.”

Walker reminisced about how much softball has meant to her, “This sport is what has kept me going all these years. I’m sad that this is my last year of high school softball, but I will not forget the memories that were made with this team. I’ve grown up with the majority of the girls on my team. Some of us have been on the same teams since we were little. I have too many good memories with softball, but one that specifically is my favorite would be my freshman year, I was so nervous because I had made varsity and I was a freshman so I felt out of place I guess. But every single person had made me feel welcomed. And that’s the type of energy you need as a team.” Zanona sniped a memory from a freshman year playoff game, “My freshman year, we traveled seven hours to McLoughlin High School and were predicted to lose. There was pressure with it being a playoff game, but we had nothing to lose, the nerves gradually went away, and we upset them 7-5.”

Credit: Sweet Home News

Carter recalled two powerful memories, both with significant meaning, “My freshman year I made JV and constantly put myself down because I believed that I was better than that. My first game of my freshman year, I got asked to swing up. Let me tell you something, I have never felt more included. It made me see what a varsity team was about. It’s not just the game but it’s family.” Carter also talked about dealing with the loss of her father and return to softball, “Another memory that I have was last season. I lost my dad in December 2018 which took a tug for softball. I never thought that I’d get back up and play the game that I love. My teammates were right by my side and I honestly couldn’t have done it without them. My centerfielder last year, Marissa Kurtz, was one of my closest teammates. Every away game, we would look up in the sky from the outfield and find that dang rainbow. That was my dad watching me. This is my favorite memory. Always will be.”

Credit: Sweet Home Softball

Advice For The Young Girl

Finally, I wrapped it up with their advice for young girls, the future of our sports in high school and collegiate sports. Graci Zanona says to enjoy every moment, “Little girls…always try your hardest no matter who is looking. Have fun with the game, it only lasts for so long, and take every opportunity that you get because you have no idea when it might be your last one.” Bailee Hartstook said to keep moving forward, “Always look forward and never backwards! If you love the game, never let anyone take it from you!” Brooke Burke says to never let anything ruin your love of the game, “Advice I would give is don’t let a coach take away your love of the game. Just go out there and have fun because when you stop doing that the love stops, and you might stop, but when you come back to the game you realize how much you miss it.”

Emily Brown suggests gaining a diverse perspective, “If you have the chance to play for a team out of town, do it. Our coaches at Sweet Home are great but being able to meet to friends and be coached by different perspectives is a really unique experience. Also, don’t get glued to one position. The more positions you know the easier the game will come to you. It’s also really good to know how to play everywhere just incase someone gets hurt and coach has to throw you in there out of the blue.” Ashtyn Walker gave her input on advice, “My advice for the younger girls is always do your best, no matter what position you are put in try your best and always keep a smile on your face. Love your teammates, because that’s who will be there for you. You won’t always have softball around, but you’ll have your teammates. Enjoy it while you can.” Finally, Jasmine Carter puts a bow on top, “My advice for the young softball players is to play with your heart and continue to push yourself. Don’t lose yourself in the game but bring yourself closer to your teammates. The game won’t always be there but your teammates will. Love the game but more importantly love your teammates.”

Credit: Sweet Home News

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