Salem Academy junior pitcher Addi Bennett is striking out 2.3 batters per inning and batting .650. (Photo by Jeremy McDonald)
Salem Academy junior pitcher Addi Bennett is striking out 2.3 batters per inning and batting .650. (Photo by Jeremy McDonald)

From 2019 to 2022, Salem Academy fell off the Oregon softball map, unable to field a team.

The Crusaders finally returned to the field last season – going 9-13 in a co-op with Willamette Valley Christian – and this year they have shot up the ranks in 2A/1A.

Heading into Wednesday's game at Kennedy, Salem Academy is 15-0 and ranked sixth in the OSAAtoday 2A/1A coaches poll. The Crusaders are poised to post their first 20-win season since 2001, when they went 23-10.

“We're just trying to piece it back together,” coach Derek Imig said.

Imig, the school's girls basketball coach, was the catalyst for bringing softball back. He coached his daughter, Bailey, in youth softball, and he started Salem Academy's middle school program when she was a seventh-grader in 2022.

With Bailey's strong softball class in the pipeline, Imig approached Salem Academy athletic director Brooke Jones about kick-starting the high school program.

“I said, 'Hey, we've got some good softball girls,'” Imig said. “'The numbers are up, so let's get this on the docket, try to get this thing going again.' One thing led to another, and then suddenly, I'm the coach.”

Salem Academy cobbled together a 10-player team last year, picking up three players from Willamette Valley Christian. This season, bolstered by five freshmen, all 15 players on the roster are from Salem Academy.

The return of five starters, including ace junior pitcher Addi Bennett, and the addition of four freshman with travel-ball experience has propelled the Crusaders to a new level this season. It also helps that their home field is playable this year after playing an all-road schedule last season.

“The core of our team was sophomores last year, so I knew we'd have a year more of experience,” Imig said. “I knew the chances were we would win more than nine games. Being undefeated surprises me.”

Salem Academy has outscored its opponents 239-34. The Crusaders lead 2A/1A in runs per game (15.9) and are second to Grant Union in runs allowed (2.3 per game). They are a modest No. 7 in the OSAA power rankings, however, a product of their schedule.

“Our league is not nearly as difficult as it was last year,” Imig said.

Imig is well acquainted with the girls basketball landscape in Oregon – he led the Crusaders to a 2A runner-up finish in 2022 – but he is still getting a feel for softball. He is keeping the team's success in perspective.

“I'm still trying to figure out where we rank in the big picture,” he said. “In my opinion, we're for sure a top-10 team, potentially a legitimate top-six team. I do think we have the ability to make some noise come playoffs. We've got a really good pitcher and we can hit the ball.”

In their most important game of the season so far, the Crusaders battled to a 7-5, eight-inning win at Blanchet Catholic on April 23 in a showdown for first place in Special District 2. Bennett struck out 18 in the win.

“Playing Blanchet was a good litmus test for us,” Imig said. “That was a true softball game. It was a whole roller coaster of emotions throughout that one.”

Bennett, who transferred from Blanchet Catholic as a sophomore, is the team's driving force. In 62 innings, she has allowed 44 hits, struck out 142 and walked 25, posting a 1.69 ERA.

“She's got a lot of different spins. A good combination of accuracy and speed,” Imig said. “She's right up there with all the top pitchers. She can place it and throw it by you.”

The team's other returning starters are junior second baseman Grace Talbot, junior third baseman Jocelyn Brault, sophomore catcher Grace Maffeo and junior right fielder Faith Roehl.

Junior Olivia Kansky, a transfer from Blanchet, has taken over at first base. The team has three freshman starters in shortstop Addie Brault, left fielder Lilly Bennett and center fielder Bailey Imig.

The Crusaders have scored at least six runs in every game. Lilly Bennett (25 RBIs) bats leadoff, followed by Addi Bennett (.650), Kansky (.636, 33 RBIs) and Jocelyn Brault (two home runs).

Derek Imig said consistency on defense will determine the team's fate. The Crusaders have plenty of athleticism – five starters played basketball – but must crack down on defensive mistakes.

Salem Academy will get a good test when it finishes the regular season with a nonleague home game against No. 3 North Douglas and two games against Blanchet Catholic.

“Being undefeated is not super important to us,” Derek Imig said. “I tell the girls, 'What had 15-0 earned you? We haven't clinched anything yet. We've earned nothing.'”