ILWACO/NASELLE — Caitlyn Derrey is not your average freshman. She’s a leader on her softball team, one of their starting pitchers, and has more experience on the team than other girls her age normally would. How could this be you ask? Derrey was one of a handful of eighth graders to play on the high school team last year, part of a trend in small schools across the state who need to look to younger kids in order to fill out their rosters.

“I’m really glad that I did it because I feel like my improvement from last year has been amazing,” she said. “I got the experience and put more practice in and actually got to see what it’s like.”

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, which governs high school sports in the state, allows for schools in the 2B and 1B classifications to recruit eighth grade students to play on high school teams if they do not have enough older students to field a team.

This has been a boon for programs like Ilwaco softball, who added three middle school girls last season — a first for the team.

“Otherwise I only would’ve had 10 players this year. Last year I would’ve had less,” said coach Randy Bloom, who added that the Lady Fishermen have five eighth graders playing this year. Their roster of 15 features 10 girls in eighth or ninth grade. “I think a lot of these eighth graders are very competitive, and the ninth graders have that extra experience [this year]. It’s going to help us in the future when they get older.

“I’d like to have 15 high school players, but these girls are learning and helping the program out.”

Because of the average age of his players Bloom has been weaving in more remedial skill drills into practices early in the season.

“Yeah, a lot more than I’ve done in the past but they’re catching on though,” he said. “I think at any age you have to go back to the basics and work your way up. We’ve only played three games and we’re still learning as we go along.”

Bloom also touted the fact that the younger girls also took part in summer league play and so have more experience coming in than you might expect.

One of those making the leap this year is Gracie Barnett, who has already cemented a starting spot in the infield, and has pitched too.

“It was nerve-wracking at first because I don’t want to upset the older players,” she said. “But I’ve been learning a lot and getting a lot better. It’s definitely been a learning experience. Having older people around you makes you get better and they give you constructive criticism.”

Locally, this phenomenon was first seen on the baseball field at Naselle, where three years ago they added their first middle school player, Donnie Edwards. NHS baseball coach Randy Lindstrom, whose eighth grade son Ethan is one of four middle school players on the team this year, said it’s a win-win for the program, as they are not only fast-tracking some young players, but also allowing them to have enough to play their games.

“If you can bring some kids up into this size program, it’s definitely an advantage,” he said. “It doesn’t really effect our competitiveness. They’re getting on-page with what we’re doing. If they’re able to play at the varsity level then they play. We’re all out for the win. By the time they’re sophomores they’re already veterans.

Now a sophomore, and co-captain of the team, Edwards said he was glad he had the opportunity.

“It was fun. I got experience playing and I think it helped me. I realized that I could play and compete, and have people have confidence in me.”

It also helped in another important way — socially. Having middle schoolers socialize with older kids tends to better prepare them for when they enter the high school environment the following year.

“I think it helped me a lot because I didn’t know any of those guys,” said Edwards.

Derrey said Darian Johnson, who graduated after last season, was a big help to her.

“It was nice. Darian helped us out a lot. She was the ‘team mom,’ and she would introduce us to new people, so it was kind of like we were already there (at the high school) in a way. We were part of the high school already. It worked out really well.”

Cole Dorman, a freshman who played on the NHS baseball team as an eighth grader last year, said it definitely paid off for him, both on the field and off.

“It was good to see what that level of play was like. How fast the pitchers were pitching. At high school they can throw pretty hard, and you have adjust to that,” he said. “I got to know the guys on the field and I can build on those relationships this year at the high school. It definitely helped.”

Barnett said she thinks being on the team this spring will give her a leg up next fall too.

“(I’m) getting to know the high schoolers now, and when I get up there (to the high school campus) they’ll know me. I’ll know a few older people that way, instead of just freshmen.”

According to the younger players, both Edwards and Derrey have been paying back the help they received by being active in trying to assist this year’s younger players.

“I’ve been trying to help them more, trying to make sure they are fully included in everything we do, even group conversations,” she said. “I had that experience and I want theirs to be just as amazing as I had.”

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