Jillian Leslie was none too happy, and she wasn’t alone.
A 2011 softball season ended in sadness when popular Perry coach Allison Robinson left town to return to her native-California, and the months leading into 2012 swirling with instability.
Leslie was already an elite hitter as an underclassman, but the junior-to-be was asked by new coach Kevin Chapin to be a pitcher.
Chapin — who spent time as an assistant at Corona del Sol and Basha before being hired at Perry — was a less-nonsense and efficient coach than Robinson, and the Pumas were young and without a reliable pitcher.
It wasn’t her long-term future. That was for hitting and playing the infield. But while the Pumas lost a lot of kids to graduation, Leslie cared about hitting first and foremost.
A pitcher for 2012, however, was nowhere to be found.
“We had that conversation real quick,” Chapin said.
Leslie hadn’t pitched since junior high, and in a sport so heavily-reliant on a standout pitcher to succeed, it showed to start 2012. On April 3, 2012, Perry was 9-13 after a loss to rival-Basha. Even current junior Devon Ryan’s older sister, who played for Chapin when he was helping at Corona del Sol, wasn’t enough of a ringing endorsement to buy into Chapin’s chops.
“Some of us were a little standoff-ish,” said Leslie, who’ll return to the infield at Harvard this fall. “I was annoyed when they asked me to pitch because I saw myself as an infielder. It was the first time I ever quit at anything and it was really hard because I see myself as a perfectionist.”
Already a top-notch power hitter and run producer at the plate, she (re-)figured out how to pitch, and the Pumas didn’t lose again for a month before they were (literally) two pitches away from knocking then-No. 1 seed Basha out of the state tournament but lost that season-ending heartbreaker.
“That was a rough game,” said Leslie, who hit two home runs but gave up two Basha rallies. “The memory never leaves.”
That winning streak convinced returning players of Chapin’s coaching chops, and with the veterans now on board with the new coach, Perry has barely paused in its playoff pursuits.
A 4-0 loss to Basha on Thursday afternoon snapped Perry’s 14-game winning streak — its previous loss was to three-time defending champion Red Mountain in the Lion Country Classic on Feb. 23 — which included winning the Marcos de Niza/McClintock tournament.
Even with wins against Gilbert (twice), Corona del Sol and Desert Mountain, Perry (18-3) players and coaches acknowledged this week a win over Basha or Red Mountain would be the next big step to announcing its “arrival” as a softball contender, and they wear “Bash the Bears” t-shirts around campus not to instigate bad blood between the schools (several of the kids on both sides play with and against each other in club circles), but as a mental note of what a win against the neighboring perennial powers would mean after the past few letdowns.
The teams play again on April 2.
“If we win one we’ll know we’ve closed the gap, but even if it’s a close game we can take something away from it,” said Ryan, now a captain. “We’ll find out who we are.”
Who they were was M.I.A. when Chapin was hired two years ago. The popular, laid back Robinson (a former University of Arizona standout) quickly created a competitive program since the school’s inception in 2008. Leslie, who owns several hitting school records including 38 career home runs (and counting), lives in Perry’s boundaries but said she was going to open enroll at Basha as a freshman until her parents talked her out of it. Much of that was because of Robinson, but when Chapin took over, it became a tighter operation with long-but-efficient practices and an increased emphasis on fitness.
The Pumas are deeper offensively and better defensively than a year ago. Four starters are hitting over .400 and feature a speedster in leadoff hitter Laynee Gomez. Chapin believes Ryan might be the most improved player from last spring, and while he thought Taylor Aldridge could make the varsity squad in her freshman season, hitting .360 with three home runs wasn’t expected.
The so-called “next in line” of Division I contenders behind Red Mountain and Basha isn’t yet a lengthy list (Horizon, Xavier, possibly Gilbert and Chaparral), but if its once-reluctant pitcher and defense continue to produce, the Pumas will have pushed themselves onto the pile.
“I want to beat teams who don’t really think we’re any good,” Leslie said. “We want to be taken seriously. We’re not the biggest, baddest, strongest players, but we can get it done.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.