Panthers win their opener as they get set for a new challenge

Photos by Ray Hamill/ – The McKinleyville girls react during Saturday’s season opener against St. Bernard’s.

By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers got the new softball season off to a winning start on Saturday afternoon, but they will face a new challenge this spring.

After winning two consecutive North Coast Section championships in each of the past two full seasons (2019 and 2022), the Mack girls have been moved up to Division 3 this year.

That will make it more difficult to continue their recent postseason dominance, although with a solid group of seniors and an impressive freshman pitcher, the Panthers won’t shy away from that challenge.

On Saturday, they defeated St. Bernard’s 9-0 at Mack High, with several players contributing, including freshman pitcher McKennah Sargent.

The newcomer had a perfect game going until the fifth and finished with six strikeouts, while allowing just three hits, a hit batsman and no walks.

Sargent is expected to see significant time in the circle this year, along with returning junior Mashell Stumpf, and head coach Shanna McCracken likes a lot of what she’s seen from both girls.

“I think they both have really good composure in the circle and don’t let anything get to them,” the head coach said. “And they can both field their position.”

Offensively, every McKinleyville player got a hit on Saturday, with senior Kennedy Minton leading the way and finishing 3-for-4 with a couple of RBIs.

Experienced senior Camryn Pinard also hit the ground running after just recently joining the squad after a long playoff run in basketball and finished 2-for-3 with an RBI, while sophomore Bailee Box also got the new season off to a good start and was 2-for-4 with two RBIs.

Last season, a clutch Panthers team finished 20-8 and made it to the NorCal tournament after winning all four NCS games on the way to a D-4 title, three of them by just one run.

This year, they have five seniors back from that team, including first baseman Minton and third baseman Rebecca Barnett, each of whom have been leading the way through the early practices.

“They have really set the tone for a lot of the younger players,” McCracken said of the senior duo. “I think a lot of the young players are learning from the seniors.”

Barnett made an impressive unassisted inning-ending double play in the fifth on Saturday just as the St. Bernard’s girls were threatening.

The three other seniors — Pinard, Trinity Preston and Taya Gomes — were all playing basketball until recently and have only had a few days with the team, but all of them played key roles in last year’s success and will be expected to pick up just where they left off.

McCracken also has four juniors on the roster, including Stumpf, Leah Circe, Kyla Beck and Liz Mengel, along with two sophomores, Box and Jessie Driggs.

Three freshmen round out the squad, with newcomers Liana Stumpf and Taylor Wade joining Sargent.

Liana Stumpf also could see time in the circle this spring, giving McCracken and longtime assistant coach Drew Riddle some options and depth at pitching.

Switching to Division 3 this year has also meant a change in the scheduling with the NCS postseason in mind, and the Panthers will travel to the Bay Area next week for a couple of key early-season games against Tamalpais and San Marin

“Really, we have to travel to play some other Division-3 teams,” McCracken said.

While the move up will make things more challenging, it is also a reflection of the success the Panthers have enjoyed under the guidance of McCracken in recent years.

The program’s growth is further evidenced in the number of girls who showed up for tryouts this spring.

“I had more girls trying out this year than when I was (coaching) at Eureka,” McCracken said. “It’s nice to see the girls want to be here.”

For more on St. Bernard’s, see Senior-heavy Crusaders appear ready to challenge in the L4 …

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