Kaia Oliver stood in the infield of her first softball game and grew bored. It was a coach-pitch league, and Oliver, even at age 7, didn’t want to be a bystander watching someone else commanding the pitching circle.
“I wanted to be in charge,” she said.
A decade later, Oliver commands the pitching circle like few others in the region. The Ridgefield High School junior is the reigning Greater St. Helens 2A League Player of the Year after leading the Spudders to a share of the league title and their first state appearance since 2011.
Oliver dominated to the tune of a 13-3 record, striking out 178 in only 113 innings, allowing only 13 earned runs all year in recording a 0.81 ERA. She also batted .385 with a team-high three home runs and 13 RBIs.
With a scholarship offer from Syracuse University in her hip pocket, she’ll soon trade the rain of the Pacific Northwest for the ice and snow of upper New York, and she can hardly wait.
“From the moment I stepped on campus, I knew it would be my future home,” she said. “It just felt right. It felt like home.”
Opening the Season with a Bang
March 16 marked the season opener for the Spudders, who trekked the dozen or so miles from their school to Battle Ground to take on the Tigers.
The sun shone as Oliver toed the rubber for the first time in several months in a real game. The second batter she faced was Battle Ground junior Grace Stillman.
Oliver hung a fat pitch in Stillman’s wheelhouse. Nearly 300 feet later, it landed over the center-field fence for a home run.
“A lucky pitch,” Oliver’s mom, Shawn, said. Shawn serves as the team’s official scorekeeper, a role she now relishes. “Did I get into scoring to calm my nerves? Kind of. But I also got conned into it,” she said. “It keeps me from yelling and screaming – sometimes.”
In the dugout, coach Dusty Anchors watched as Oliver shrugged off the homer.
“She takes it personally when someone gets a hit off her,” Anchors said. “I bet if you clocked her after Stillman hit that homer, Kaia was probably throwing 2-3 mph faster.”
The Tigers certainly struggled to scratch out much offense after Stillman’s bomb. They managed just three more hits the rest of the game, and Oliver worked around a pair of walks and a tighter-than-she’d-like strike zone to record 13 strikeouts in a 3-1 victory.
“The way she’s able to pitch, it’s amazing,” said junior Emma Jenkins, who’s caught Oliver in travel and school ball since they were in elementary school. “Today, I just said to her that she’s going to have pull that pitch in, and she adjusted, but she still put the ball where they can’t hit it.”
How a Spud Becomes an Orange
How does a small-town girl from Ridgefield end up getting noticed by an ACC school 3,000 miles away?
In Oliver’s case, it required heading to California the summer before her freshman year to attend an OnDeck Softball camp, where she caught the eye of Orange coach Mike Bosch and his staff.
They kept in contact throughout her freshman season, and that summer, Oliver boarded a plane and flew back east to visit the Syracuse campus.
“I was a little worried,” she recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘Is it going to be worth it?’ But I had an open mind, and when I got there, I knew right off the bat. I wanted to be a part of that.”
Oliver is a right-handed hurler who mixes a 66-mph fastball with a curveball and dropball – a repertoire honed not just during the high school season but through hundreds of innings pitched for her travel team, the Northwest Bullets out of Tualatin.
This summer, Oliver will test herself against some of the nation’s best pitching for the AZ Athletics, a powerhouse travel team based in Scottsdale, Arizona. She and her family – Shawn, dad Rob (a former George Fox pitcher who is a volunteer coach for the Spudders), and fraternal twin sister Karli (an all-league center fielder) – will room with Oliver’s future Syracuse teammate, A.J. Kaiser, a standout catcher for Canyon del Oro in Tucson.
Spudders fans needn’t worry, though. Oliver isn’t about to abandon the Northwest for sunnier climes.
“I would never think about moving,” she said. “Never. I love this team. It’s such a huge part of my life. I’m so glad I’ve gotten to spend so many years with my teammates, creating memories.”
Leading Ridgefield’s Resurgence
Her future taken care of, Oliver can now focus on the present – bringing Ridgefield softball back to its past glory and creating a whole new set of memories.
The Spudders were a 1A powerhouse in the early 2000s, finishing second at state twice in 2001 and 2003 before winning the 2004 championship.
They since fell on hard times, making it back to state only the one time between 2004 and last season.
Oliver’s freshman season went like so many recent Ridgefield seasons – a top-four finish in league, qualify for districts, a quick exit. “We definitely knew something had to change,” she remembered. “We had goals in mind that we didn’t achieve. Something had to happen.”
Hot or Cold
Spaghetti or Chow mein
Cat or Dog
Beach or Mountains
Tom or Jerry
Batman or Superman
Heads or Tails
Jennie Finch or Monica Abbott
Hamburger or Hot dog
Ketchup or Salsa
Huskies or Cougars
What happened was Anchors took the head coaching job just a couple weeks before the start of last season. Anchors previously coached at Olympic and Eastlake high schools and had spent the 2015-16 season as a volunteer assistant at Battle Ground.
His old-school, disciplined style of coaching was just what Oliver hoped for.
“I was excited to see someone with the passion and intensity that he had,” Oliver said. “I knew off the bat that I would like him.”
With a roster featuring nine sophomores and a freshman, the Spudders shared the GSHL 2A title with Columbia River, then won their first two district games to earn their way back to state.
That they ended up losing the district final to W.F. West and went 0-2 at state was disappointing, but “that was just the foundation,” Oliver said. “It definitely lit a fire under us. It drives us and motivates us every day to go back.”