The first rule of "The Red Mountain Way": Don't panic.
With a self-described "surprisingly calm" demeanor, cleanup hitter Jordan Beck cleaned up and put away what had been a mess Tuesday night, and No. 2 Red Mountain swept its way through the winner's bracket to advance to the Division I softball state championship game with a 4-3 comeback victory against Glendale Mountain Ridge on Tuesday night at Rose Mofford Softball Complex.
After thunderstorms delayed the game for nearly an hour, dominant pitching, flawless defense and strong hitting from Mountain Ridge was on display for the first 26 outs.
But two-time defending-champion Red Mountain has made a habit of crazy comebacks in the past five years of state tournaments, and it happened again.
After a night of non-solid contact against Mountain Ridge pitcher Taryn Kelly, Beck drove in the tying runs with two outs in the seventh inning to force extra innings, then a bases-loaded ground-rule double by Haley Culley in the eighth inning sealed the latest in a long line of Lions' late-game revivals:
Whether it was beating Mountain View twice in the semifinals last season to stay alive; or beating Mountain Ridge twice in the semifinals two years ago; or forcing extra innings to win a state championship; or that this is the first time in the Rich Hamilton era that his team hasn't had to go through the loser's bracket to reach the title game.
Red Mountain will attempt to win a third consecutive big-school state championship on Monday night at Arizona State's Farrington Stadium. Meanwhile, No. 4 Mountain Ridge will attempt to resurrect its good vibrations of the past two weeks in a rematch with No. 1 Basha in the loser's bracket final on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Rose Mofford.
Basha beat Horizon on Tuesday night to stay alive in the loser's bracket. Mountain Ridge beat Basha, 6-0, last Saturday, but this is an elimination game. Friday's winner faces Red Mountain for the state title.
As she had done to Basha last weekend (and most of this tournament), Kelly dominated Red Mountain's lineup for 6 2/3 innings. She stifled Red Mountain's offense after allowing a first-inning run while her defense made every play behind her. Red Mountain never got an extra-base hit on the night and the Mountain Ridge defense was error-free for seven innings.
Red Mountain was down to its leadoff hitter and two strikes in the seventh when everything changed.
Culley and Payton Kornfeind both bunted for singles. No. 3-hitter Siera Phillips bounced a seeing-eye single into right field to load the bases. Then Beck hit one of the few hard-hit balls for Red Mountain, a liner to left for a single that Taylor Kaye couldn't field cleanly, and Culley and Kornfeind scored to tie the game at 3-3.
Kelly got the third out of the seventh inning on a nice play by second baseman Danielle Reynolds, but Mountain Ridge went down in order in the top of the eighth against Red Mountain pitcher Bre Macha, who relieved Phillips in the sixth inning.
Taylor Benson got Red Mountain's eighth inning started with a bloop single behind first base. A sacrifice bunt attempt turned into a hit on a Mountain Ridge error, and Kaylin Ayotte relieved Kelly.
With runners on first and second, another single just out of Reynolds reach behind second base loaded the bases with one out. Culley then gashed a liner to deep center field to score Beeson with the winning run.
"It was right down the middle," Culley said of her third hit of the night which now has her playing in a whopping fourth softball state championship game in her high school career.
Mountain Ridge managed nine hits off Phillips (six of those from the 3-4-5 hitters), and quickly erased an early 1-0 deficit in the second inning on an RBI infield hit by Taylor Kaye. Mountain Ridge put two more runs on the board in the third on singles by Amanda Cole and Alyssa DiCarlo (who showed off her rocket arm in right field a couple times to prevent Red Mountain runners from advancing). Bailey Gaffin lined a ball to left field that bounced off Beeson's glove for a three-base error which gave Mountain Ridge a 3-1 lead.
"The girls played great, I couldn't ask for any more," Mountain Ridge coach Michelle Markham said. "We did just about everything right that we wanted, but we couldn't finish and they did."
Effective with her location and changeup, Macha pitched three no-hit innings with three strikeouts.
It still appeared too little, too late. Kelly's pitching and her defense made it appear as though Mountain Ridge punched its title-game ticket.
But this is Red Mountain, where state tournament ulcers have become something of a program requisite.
"The belief in each other those last two innings to get it done was something special," Hamilton said.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.