Central Whidbey has tough road ahead in the Little League state playoffs

Stella Johnson at the plate Central Whidbey during the District 11 softball championship on July 3.

They may not play running back for the Seattle Seahawks, but in each of Central Whidbey Little League’s 9/10 All-Star players is a bit of Marshawn Lynch.

The part of him which really, really enjoys Skittles, that is.

“Someone will say at practice, ‘What do I need to do to get a bag of Skittles?’ ” said coach Mimi Johnson. “One of the coaches will say, ‘Pitch six strikes in a row.’ ”

With incentives like that, it’s not hard to see why Central Whidbey won the District 11 tournament and earned its second consecutive trip to the state playoffs.

“We came up with these games where they’re learning, but with less pressure,” Johnson said. “Truthfully, if they’re not having fun, then why play?”

Central Whidbey will open the double-elimination tournament against Marysville at 1 p.m. Saturday, July 11 at Vancouver’s Glenwood Little League fields.

Central Whidbey will certainly have a steep task at state. Central Whidbey touts a small roster — 11 girls — and most of the teams they’ll face will have two to three times that number. Central Whidbey also has a small drawing pool for talent, which includes just South Whidbey and Coupeville, while the competition has five to six schools to choose from as well as year-round facilities.

“They really get the opportunity to select their girls,” Johnson said. “Our girls, it doesn’t matter. That’s going to be our biggest struggle: they have bigger pools.”

But there are benefits to having a smaller team. Particularly, it’s far easier to bond and play effectively.

“We’re really good friends as a team,” said outfielder Madison Knauer. “Together, we communicate really well.”

Knauer and the team’s primary pitcher, Chanel Sterba, are eager for the opportunity to play at state.

“I’m looking forward to striking out people,” Sterba said. “I want to win the game and move on.”

The biggest challenge for Central Whidbey, as it was last season, will be the opposing pitching. Johnson said the team was caught off-guard when they saw pitchers with an arsenal of up to four different kinds of pitches at their disposal. It was also a wake-up call that the team needed to develop their own hurlers.

“My biggest takeaway was that we needed to develop pitchers,” Johnson said. “We really had one pitcher going into state last year. This year, I have four.”

The pitchers include Sterba, McKaela Meffert, Abby Mulholland, and Isabelle Wells.

As the team’s primary pitcher, Sterba will be relied upon heavily. It’s a good thing, then, that Sterba has been working on her craft all season.

“She’s going to do great. She has really developed as a pitcher,” Johnson said. “She’s like a sponge. She’s constantly saying, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ ”

Using fun exercises like giving out candy at practice or setting up slip’n’slides on their days off has kept the atmosphere playful while also dispersing the level of tension that comes from playing competitive sports.

“They know when I expect them to buckle down and be serious,” Johnson said. “At the same time, it’s not unlike one of us to throw something fun in there.”