Matchup with Team USA could be turning point as Vikings prepare for conference play
Adversity—that’s what has characterized the season for Portland State softball up to this point. Despite having what head coach Meadow McWhorter calls “the most talented team” PSU softball has seen in several years, that talent hasn’t translated into the win column with much consistency through the team’s first 20 games.
Early season struggles have not discouraged this Vikings team, however. There is a belief held throughout the team that the best is yet to come, and the goal remains the same.
“Our number one goal is to be Big Sky regular-season champs, qualify for the tournament and win the tournament—make it to regionals,” McWhorter said. “That is a unanimous goal amongst all of these girls.” The Vikings will have the opportunity to see how they stack up against the best when they face the USA Olympic softball team on March 17.
For a team with so much talent, the challenge has been finding that consistency and learning to play together.
“Our record is deceiving because we’ve really only been beaten maybe two to three times,” McWhorter said. “The rest of our losses have been more us beating ourselves and not playing clean softball.”
“This is by far—I’d say probably in the last eight years—the most talented team we’ve had here at Portland State,” McWhorter said. “For the first time in several years, our strength is in all three roles of the game; whether that be pitching, defense or offense. But I’d say one of the challenges then has been playing consistently, playing good softball every game.”
The Vikings have shown flashes of greatness, including a dominant 13-2 win over Western Michigan in the season opener, but maintaining that success in all three phases has been difficult.
“One of our goals right now is really getting this team to fire on all three cylinders—all three aspects of the game,” McWhorter said. “That’s our number one challenge right now is just all playing great on the same day.”
“We’ve had some ups and downs already this season, which I think is why we’ve grown closer,” senior outfielder Tayler Gunesch said. “Just facing that adversity has brought us closer, because we have to figure out how to get through it together.”
Getting through it together seems to be the collective mindset of the team. Senior infielder Darian Lindsey believes the team’s challenges have only deepened their bond.
“The adversity we’ve faced and the struggles we’ve been going through lately—because we haven’t had a winning record—I feel like that’s brought us a lot closer together. Because it’s just a matter of being cohesive as a team and figuring it out.”
A conference championship is still the goal for PSU, but it’s a long season, and the players understand that success comes gradually.
“As a team, our end goal is definitely to win Big Sky, but we’re more focused on game by game and not looking too far ahead,” Gunesch said. “We’re just taking it pitch by pitch, game by game, and we’ll see what happens.”
If there were ever a way to measure where the team stands and what their potential might be, the upcoming matchup with the USA Olympic softball team seems as good as any.
“We’ll be tested against the best players in the world, not even just our country, but in the world,” McWhorter said. “I think it’ll test our grit and our ability to be resilient. You already know that toe-to-toe, you’re playing the best. A lot of these girls get to play their idols.”
“You ask any of them and they’ll all talk about what an honor it is to be able to have this opportunity,” McWhorter said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The significance of the game has not been lost on the players.
“It’s a privilege just to be able to play the team,” Lindsey said. “To play against those girls and be able to say you were on the field with them, I think that’s really exciting.”
Gunesch shared Lindsey’s appreciation for the moment.
“It’s definitely a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gunesch said. “Not every team gets to play that high-level kind of team. I’m just looking forward to the experience.”
McWhorter spoke on the importance of appreciating what a privilege it is to play in this game.
“Yes it’s an unbelievable moment to be a part of, but really savor it, be in the moment. Just take a moment to look around and recognize where you are and what opportunity you have before you.”
But McWhorter doesn’t want her players approaching Team USA as an opponent larger than life.
“Just remember, you know what? They put on their shoes the same way we do. They put on their uniform the same way we do, and we’ve got nothing to lose.”
Facing off with a high-caliber opponent like Team USA can give the Vikings a valuable confidence boost heading into their conference schedule.
“I think our team will be able to hold our own against the Olympic team,” Gunesch said. “I think that will really help us going into conference, just knowing that if we’re able to compete with that high-level team, we can compete with anyone else in our conference.”
McWhorter believes being forced to play up to the skill level of an experienced opponent like Team USA will help the Vikings realize their full potential.
“Recognizing the challenge before us and just rising to that challenge. I think that, more than anything, will be what prepares us for conference. Knowing that no matter the opponent and no matter how big the challenge, knowing that we can rise.”
It’s been an uphill battle for the Vikings thus far, but the struggles they faced early on should only make them a stronger and more battle-tested team as the season progresses.
“We’ve talked a lot about adversity and what we’re facing,” McWhorter said. “Our challenges right now will become our strengths, and it’s going to pay off when we get to conference.”