Kaia Simpson, and her sister Nicola, have been key players in turning around what was one of the worst programs in the Metro League in a team with a shot at winning the Class 3A state title this weekend.
Kaia Simpson remembers the struggles.
As an eighth grader, she was in the stands as the Garfield High School softball team pulled off one of its few victories.
“I thought, ‘OK, I want to be a part of this,’ ” she recalls.
When: Friday and Saturday.
Where: Class 4A, Merkel Sports Complex, Spokane; 3A, Regional Athletic Complex, Lacey; 2A, Carlon Park, Selah; 1A, Columbia Playfield, Richland; 2B and 1B, Gateway Sports Complex, Yakima.
Follow along: @JaydaEvans, @WIAAWA
Top story lines: There will be a new 4A champion after Woodinville’s stunning late-season fall. The Falcons, unbeaten last year, were 18-1 before back-to-back losses to Eastlake and Newport in the KingCo District tournament. … Talk about a drama-filled opener: When Redmond (23-1) and Yelm (25-2) square off in Game 1 of the 3A tournament, it will be a rematch of last year’s championship game, which the Mustangs won 9-5. Yelm was upset by Prairie in the West Central/Southwest bi-district tournament quarterfinals last Thursday and had to scramble through the consolation bracket to qualify. … Snohomish (22-1) is looking for some redemption in the 3A tourney after failing to place last season, one year after winning the 4A title. … Lakewood is the lone Greater Seattle area qualifier in 2A and hopes to make some noise after a second-place finish in the Northwest District tournament. … Montesano goes for its second straight 1A title and 10th overall.
Five players to watch
• P Iyanla Penington, Jackson, Sr. (18-1, 0.28 ERA, 235 Ks in 1131/3 innings; .548 batting average)
• P-OF Kiki Milloy, Redmond, Jr. (14-0, 0.98 ERA, 140 Ks in 86 innings; .676 batting average)
• P Brooke Nelson, Bonney Lake, Jr. (18-2, 0.31 ERA, 207 Ks in 90 innings; .833 batting average)
• 3B Sophia Bjerk, Puyallup, Sr. (.620 batting average, 18 2B, 5 HR)
• OF Sami Reynolds, Snohomish, Sr. (.485 batting average, 36 runs, just 2 Ks)
Favorites: 4A: Jackson, Puyallup, Richland. 3A: Redmond (defending champs), Snohomish, Bonney Lake. 2A: W.F. West (defending champs), Sehome. 1A: Montesano (defending champs), Warden, Lynden Christian. 2B: Pe Ell/Willapa Valley (defending champs), Napavine, Northwest Christian (Colbert). 1B: Pomeroy (defending champs), Almira-Coulee-Hartline.
Last: The beat goes on for W.F. West, which has a new coach (former assistant Caty Lieseke), but is back in the 2A tournament for the 14th year in a row, which appears to be the longest active streak in the state. Bainbridge is making its 12th straight trip to the 3A event.
Part of a program in transition, one traditionally dogged by lots of drama and lopsided defeats.
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Simpson wanted to help make a difference. And, boy, has she.
The junior pitcher/first baseman is a key reason the Bulldogs are 23-2 and considered contenders in the Class 3A state tournament Friday and Saturday at the Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey.
“I cannot think of anyone else who has led the transformation of an entire program over the past three years the way Kaia has done at Garfield,” said first-year hed coach Ken Simpson, who is also Kaia’s father and joined the program as an assistant her freshman year.
It didn’t happen overnight, and she didn’t expect it to.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Kaia said.
Garfield won just six games her freshman year, when a coaching change was made during preseason workouts. But one of those victories was in the Metro League tournament — a rarity if not a first.
Whitney Jones, a former UW player, took over as coach last season and guided the Bulldogs to their first state berth as Kaia won 17 games, led the Metro League in strikeouts, batted .439 and drove in 43 runs. They clinched the trip with an 8-6 victory over Juanita, the 2015 state champion, in the SeaKing District tournament.
“It was the most amazing feeling,” Kaia said.
Garfield drew defending-champion Meadowdale at state and lost 1-0 on an unearned run.
“No one expected us to do anything at state,” Kaia said. “For us to come out and play that well was shocking to a lot of people.”
The Bulldogs were blown out by Bainbridge, but the bar was set and, with all but two starters back, they have higher aspirations this weekend.
“We want to win,” said Kaia, who was named Metro League MVP this season and has committed to the University of California San Diego. “That’s our big goal, to win state and make it to the championship game. But right now we’re taking it one game at a time, one step at a time.”
Garfield was unbeaten before falling to Holy Names in the semifinals of the Metro tournament 7-6 and owes its only other loss to Redmond, the defending state champion, in the district title game 2-0. Kaia hit .519 and was 13-2 in the circle with a 1.39 ERA.
“Kaia has done great things at Garfield and is a kid who, I think, was integral in making them a definite state contender,” Redmond coach Alison Mitchell said. “I’m excited to see how Garfield does in the tournament, because I know Kaia and the team will surprise some people.”
With a grade-point average just under 4.0, Kaia plans to become a thoracic surgeon and enjoys training Dakota, the family’s Labradoodle, as well as drawing. Ken Simpson describes her as coachable and diligent.
“She works hard and if something doesn’t come easily she just works at it and makes it happen until she gets to the point that she’s good at it,” he said.
Sister Nicola Simpson, a freshman who alternates with her at pitcher and first, has been instrumental to this year’s success as well with a team-best 56 RBI (Kaia has 31, and 49 runs scored). The two are close and competitive.
“We’re both very hard on ourselves,” said Kaia, who at 5-foot-11 is nearly four inches taller. “We’re perfectionists and push ourselves to the limit. We’re never satisfied with our performances. … Both of us really care about being good teammates.”
Both started playing softball at young ages and were coached early on by their mom, Jackie, a former star volleyball player and rower in Canada (Ken also played collegiate volleyball in Canada).
Kaia and Nicola have dual-citizenship and recently tried out for the Canadian Junior National team. Their goal lists include playing in the Olympics.
But well before that, winning a state championship or two.