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Vera's career with Pioneers on hold amid virus

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Mac-hi softball 2017

Pioneers converge during a game in the 2017 season in Milton-Freewater.

This spring would have marked the beginning of the Russ Vera era of McLoughlin High School softball.

But concerns over the coronavirus pandemic halted all spring sports from coast-to-coast in mid-March.

Vera, who coached 10U softball in southern California before moving to the Northwest, said his love for the sport developed while watching his father play fast-pitch softball.

Vera landed the Mac-Hi post after 11 seasons at DeSales. He guided the Irish to four Class B state semifinal appearances — in 2011, ‘12, ‘14 and ‘16 — and a pair of third- and fourth-place finishes.

In an ironic twist, Vera accepted the DeSales job one month after being named assistant coach at Mac-Hi.

“I applied at Mac-Hi at the end of the 2008 school year,” Vera said. “They hired Nicole Christian. They hired me as her assistant.

“(Former DeSales athletic director) Greg Fazzari contacted me three times,” Vera said. “I applied and got the job. Nicole had told me if I didn’t take the DeSales job, she’d fire me.”

Vera admitted being nervous before starting his tenure in Green and Gold.

“Jerry Votendahl and Tom Mertens were my first two assistant coaches,” Vera said. “I learned a lot from (Votendahl).

“We went 0-10, then won eight of our last 10 games and made the league tournament,” Vera said. “The girls responded and almost went .500.”

Things “totally changed” in 2010, Vera said. The Irish won five of six games at state.

“I pulled up (pitcher) Ashlyn Lyons as an eighth grader,” Vera said. “Junior Amanda Warnick, who had never pitched before, pitched more than Ashlyn before the state tournament. The girls rallied around (Lyons).

“We pulled eighth graders up out of necessity,” Vera said. “A lot of people at state thought Ashlyn was a junior.”

Shortstop Lexi Zander, catcher Amy Arnzen, and first baseman Alex Buley represented a trio of Irish stars who, like Lyons, “stepped it up at state,” Vera said. “To do what we did was a huge accomplishment.”

Molli Lesko was one of multiple eighth graders that contributed to a fourth-place showing in 2011, Vera said. She filled a void created by Arnzen’s departure in and caught for two seasons before transitioning to the middle infield, Vera said.

DeSales went 2-and-2 at state in both 2012, 2013 and 2015, but did not place.

The Irish reached the semifinals in 2014 and 2016.

They placed fourth in 2014 and enjoyed a glimpse of glory in 2016 by taking third after posting a 4-1 mark.

Vera is as proud, or perhaps more so, of the athletes that went on to play at four-year schools. Lyons went to Montana, Kaylee Brown (2013-17) is at Corban, and Maddy Thomas — the 2017 Max Preps small school All-American catcher who played for the Irish from 2014-18 — is attending Whitworth.

Vera also tipped his visor to his assistant coaches including Louie Murray — who was by his side for nine seasons.

“Every head coach is as good as his or her assistants,” Vera said. “They deserve a lot of the credit for the success the program had.”

The 2010-17 stretch of DeSales softball is one loyalists can look back on with a sense of pride.

“You’re excited every year you go to state,” Vera said. “Ask any of the former players and they’ll tell you it was the most exciting time that they had. Every player was special to me.”

Roy Elia can be reached