May 1, 2014
RICHLAND, Wash. -
by Evan O'Kelly, GNAC Information Office
"We have about 10 minutes left, okay?" Western Washington head softball coach Amy Suiter called out as her two young children Haley and Trey approached the chain link fence separating them from their mother.
The duo reluctantly accepted the terms set forth by Suiter, retreating to the bleachers at Columbia Playfield in Richland, Wash., to pass the seemingly-eternal time period she had informed them of.
Suiter turned back to a group of 25 college women, huddled closely together with stern concentration painted across their faces and fresh dirt stains decorating their white practice pants.
The Vikings were wrapping up their final practice before the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships, running down their next opponent's lineup hitter-by-hitter.
"Everyone at this tournament has played each other four times this season, and we feel like our kids know everyone here like they're our own players," Suiter commented on the four-team GNAC field. "We have done a good job preparing for everyone in the tournament."
A big reason Suiter feels her team is ready to challenge for a conference title is the way they have been playing lately. Western Washington kicked off the month of April with five-straight victories at the highly competitive Cal State Stanislaus Tournament of Champions.
The Vikings went on to win eight of their final 10 conference games, wrapping up the No. 2 seed heading into the tournament and finishing just one game behind regular season champion Western Oregon.
Overall, WWU went 13-4 in April, and Suiter has been selected as the GNAC Coach of the Month.
"We have a lot of young talent and senior leadership, and I couldn't ask for anything more than the way this group has played so far this season," Suiter said. "We are continuing to do things the right way and nothing has changed. We have just played more games, gotten more at bats and overall more experience."
Despite being picked to finish in fifth place and miss the playoff field in the preseason coaches' poll, Suiter and the Vikings have proven they belong towards the top of the conference.
Considering Suiter's own playing and coaching career, WWU's success should not come as a surprise.
Growing up in Mount Vernon, Wash., Suiter picked up an interest in softball as a child and excelled at the sport through high school. She attended the University of Washington for her undergraduate studies, and continued her softball career at the Division I level.
"It's kind of funny because I didn't think I wanted to get into coaching," Suiter, who was a two-year captain and team co-MVP her junior season at UW, said. "Teresa Wilson who was the coach at UW wanted me to stay and be a fifth-year coach, but I wanted to go straight to graduate school."
While Suiter (maiden name Hansen) was ready to pursue her continued education rather than coaching, a somewhat unexpected twist allowed her to do both simultaneously.
"Teresa left and went to Texas Tech, and I found out that there was a sports psychology graduate program there," Suiter remembered. "She brought me there as an assistant, and I ended up helping her for four years and being the head coach for one."
In addition to her coaching duties, Suiter is currently finishing her dissertation for her doctorate degree.
Inspired by her newly discovered passion of coaching, Suiter came across yet another opportunity when she decided to move back to the Pacific Northwest.
"I was aware of Western Washington, and I went to basketball camp there a few times growing up," said Suiter. "When I was pregnant with my first born, my husband (Dustin) and I moved home and the job opened up at WWU. It was perfect timing."
Four years later, Suiter has her group in prime position to contend for a GNAC title and advance to the NCAA regional playoffs.
Among Suiter's talented squad this season are GNAC Player of the Year Alexie Levin and GNAC Newcomer of the Year Autumn Isaacson.
"Alexie is just an athlete," Suiter said. "She can pitch, play outfield, first base and hit the ball, and she has no ego. She is a great team player, she leads by example and she is calm and confident."
Levin currently leads the GNAC in two of the triple-crown categories, with a .433 batting average and 10 home runs. Her 46 RBI are just two behind the conference leader, as she has a legitimate chance to achieve the feat.
"Alexie doesn't let the ups and downs get to her, and that is huge in this game especially in terms of hitting," said Suiter of the sophomore star. "I am not surprised at the ability she has shown in her second year, and I am excited for more to come."
Isaacson meanwhile has already broken the GNAC single-season record for stolen bases, as she has recorded 30 in her first season in the conference after transferring from Bellevue Community College.
"Autumn was a really raw, fast player, and we have been able to get her to really understand situational hitting," Suiter said of the junior. "We have seen a big difference even in the last month, and she is really becoming a triple threat at the plate."
With two of the most exciting players in the conference in its lineup, WWU's young talent has taken the league by storm.
But holding the team together and embracing a set of pillars that Suiter brought with her to the program is a special group that is unique to the fourth-year head coach.
Seniors Meghan Carrillo, Jenna DeRosier, Amanda Flores and Kaleigh Keating arrived at WWU precisely when Suiter did, and the journey they have all experienced throughout their careers is one that the Vikings' skipper will never forget.
"Those were the first kids who were freshmen when I got here, and they have really bought into the things I have brought to the program over the past four years," Suiter commented sincerely. "Their first year they had some great leadership from the senior class, and now they have been living it for their entire careers. They have really embraced the concepts I have been building this program around, and they have set such a good example. I could not have asked to inherit four better individuals, they are great kids."
Carrillo is second only to Levin in the conference in terms of batting average, sitting just one point behind the sophomore at .432. The right fielder has struck out just once in 99 plate appearances this season.
Keating is also a top-10 batter in the GNAC, hitting .361 with 35 runs scored in 41 starts in center field.
Flores, another .300 hitter at .321 this season, has homered three times and has not committed an error in 37 chances at first base.
DeRosier has posted a record of 17-4 this season with a 3.05 ERA, and is one of six players in the conference to log double-digit complete games with 10. She is one player Suiter relies on constantly to serve as a mentor and leader, as the senior has had a major impact on the Vikings' pitching even when she isn't in the circle.
"Jenna has done a great job taking the team under her wing and especially helping our freshman pitchers," Suiter commented on DeRosier's impact on freshmen Shayna Adelstein and Aspen Ison. "Give Jenna a lot of credit for what those kids know now, because they are throwing like upperclassmen and are more prepared than most."
Western Washington is set to face Central Washington in the first round of the GNAC Championships on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time. The Wildcats won the first two games the teams played this season in early March, but the Vikings responded with a doubleheader sweep to even the season series at two games apiece.
For Suiter's squad, Thursday's meeting between the rivals will be another step towards the Vikings' ultimate goal, and will reflect what the team's mindset has been all season long.
"We like to say that there's no reason to play softball if you don't have a national championship in mind," said Suiter. "Since Day 1 that is something we have talked about. We take each game one pitch at a time, but we know that any team can get hot at the right time.
"This is a great group of teammates, but even before that it is a great group of people. We are all very close, and continuing to improve every day."