A tangible point in which Red Mountain officially learned that repeating as big-school softball state champions would become difficult arrived on Saturday.
It's also when the Lions showed why they're a favorite.
Facing red-hot Horizon and without its typical offensive firepower working, the Lions' pitching and late-inning defense was good enough to move No. 2 Red Mountain into the Division I state tournament semifinals with a 2-1 victory against the No. 6-seeded Huskies on Saturday at Rose Mofford Softball Complex in Phoenix.
So much for the "Red Mountain Way" of having to win most games in the loser's bracket as the Lions have done for most of their championship seasons in the past six years. The Lions will face No. 5 Glendale Mountain Ridge in a semifinals matchup on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at Rose Mofford.
Horizon will face No. 8 Peoria Centennial in a loser's bracket matchup on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.
"We've never done this before," joked Red Mountain coach Rich Hamilton. "We're not used to having days off."
"We'll be ready to go."
Armed with two of the better pitchers in the state, it'd been a few weeks since Bre Macha stepped inside the circle for Red Mountain, but she threw a three-hitter with five strikeouts in the complete game, and, outside a solo home run by Horizon's Kaila Jacobi in the fourth inning, stymied the Huskies' dangerous top-half of their lineup.
Horizon freshman Tamara Statman did much the same to the powerful Lions. Red Mountain managed nine hits but continually worked her way out of trouble.
The Lions' two runs were the fewest since March 2 against Casa Grande, and while they weren't pleased with their approach or adjustments against Statman, it was good enough.
In the third inning, Bri Gonzalez and Alyssa Fernandez singled and moved up a base on a passed ball that set up Haley Culley's RBI sacrifice fly. Payton Kornfeind singled and Siera Phillips then hit an RBI single for the two Lions' runs.
Macha and the defense made it stick, capped by a diving catch along the left-field line in the sixth inning by the freshman Fernandez.
"It's hard to like anything we you don't win, but I'm proud of the girls for the way they've played after not getting much notice early in the season, and Tamara pitched her tail off." Horizon coach Brian Casey said. "It was a really well-played game. I'd love to see them again."
It's certainly possible, although to do so the Huskies must win Tuesday, and Wednesday nights and Red Mountain would have to lose Wednesday night as well to set up a Friday rematch.
Given some upsets and how this tournament has unfolded in the past few days, it's a distinct possibility, but if it happens, the Lions would rather move that scenario back a few more days.
Given the history elimination games they've played, the Lions would like to get a better view on the top half of the bracket for a change.
"I don't think we were as sharp as we've been and (Statman) had something to do with that," Hamilton said. "We'll have some things to work on in practice and we'll be ready to do something Red Mountain hasn't really done before."
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.