Who'll stop the reign?
An era of top-notch high school softball continues to escalate in the Valley, and yet it’s been the ladies on Brown Road who’ve filled up the school’s trophy case for three consecutive years (and four of the past six).
Red Mountain has — or hasn’t depending upon your point view — built a dynasty. Lions coach Rich Hamilton wants no part of the discussion in-part because only a couple players were part of all three teams from 2010 through 2012, the run has been among the more dominant (and occasionally crazy) streaks in the state.
These runs have happened before, notably Seton Catholic in the late 2000’s and Basha won in both 2008 and 2009, and has been to the championship game the past two seasons, falling in dramatic fashion to the Lions both times.
But nothing lasts forever, and while the Lions are again capable of winning another championship, more good fortune will be required. The rest of Division I has become too talented and deep to simply roll over: Basha, Horizon, Gilbert, Glendale Mountain Ridge, Xavier and Mountain View.
In Division II, Peoria Sunrise Mountain, Tucson schools Canyon del Oro and Ironwood Ridge have put a stranglehold for the past few years (even dating back to 5A Division II days), while the likes of Paradise Valley is trying to nudge its way into the mix. Valley Christian is trying to do the same in Div. IV.
The season is well underway, but not without a long way left to go. Here’s a look at what’s coming from now until state tournaments which welcome the month of May.
Teams to Watch
Basha: Another loaded lineup led by Hailee Siroky, Kylie Shull and Nicole Matta, speed with Brielle Breland and junior Kelsey Tidwell is solid in the circle. The Bears’ junior class is loaded, and though they’ve fallen short against Red Mountain in the past couple state championship games, the two teams could easily meet yet again.
Chaparral: With eight starters returning the Firebirds could make some noise. Injuries are the big key here as they derailed Chaparral last year, but Stefanie Ewing’s group is led by junior pitcher/1B Dallas McBride (New Mexico State), Hanna Mehok and Ashtyn Coleman. Plenty of speed on this roster.
Corona del Sol: Speaking of injuries, will this be the year the Aztecs stay healthy enough to put it together? McKenna Isenberg is a solid pitcher but her career has been hounded by health problems. The Aztecs have some hitting and speed, defense and pitching will tell the story of whether they can re-enact glimpses from a once-powerful program.
Gilbert: The Tigers have become a perennial state tournament team and a .500 start early this season should be taken in stride. The Tigers have a couple close losses to Basha, Desert Ridge and Red Mountain, but have a couple big wins as well (Chaparral, Ironwood Ridge). Marisa Stankiewicz is a clutch hitter and one of two seniors on the roster. The Tigers’ pitching and defense will tell this story.
Horizon: Off to a quick start under new coach Lindsey Collins, the competition will increase as more games against Chaparral, Desert Mountain and Pinnacle come into play with the Desert Mountain tournament. The Huskies lost a couple bats from last year’s tournament team, but sophomore Tamara Statman is an ace on the mound and an improved hitter, and Margaret Stahm can swing with nearly anyone in the state. The freshmen and sophomore classes are going to be good.
Mountain View: Pitcher Val Kaff led the state (unofficially) in shutouts and strikeouts as a junior, but the Toros don’t have depth here, so keeping her arm fresh and healthy — not to mention a whole new infield defense — will be key (and difficult) if the Toros want to go far in postseason play. Slugger Sidney Ryan and speedster Brittney Lindblom head a talented junior class.
Perry: The Pumas were about two plays away from knocking out No. 1-seed Basha in the second round of the playoffs last season, and this could be Perry’s best chance to make it there or beyond. Harvard-bound Jillian Leslie in the circle and at the plate (school-record 18 home runs in 2012) is one of 11 returners to the team. If her defense holds and she gets protection in the order, the Pumas can go places.
Red Mountain: The three-time defending champions (Division I) will be back at it again. With two top pitchers in juniors Bre Macha and Marian Ruf, and a lineup of power with Jordan Beck, Taylor Beeson and Ashley Hill, they are capable of doing it again. Team speed isn’t what it used to be and the road will be more difficult even with a young-but-experienced bunch (two starting seniors).
Valley Christian: Eight starters (nine regulars) return from last year’s Div. III state quarterfinals run. The Hunt sisters Jenelle (pitcher) and Larae (catcher), are as different as twins can be in many respects, but form a strong battery that will set the tone. Outfielder Stephanie Ware senior infielders Lexi Kalfas and Hannah Johnson lead a talented team with depth.
Xavier: Very young but full of potential. The Gators use freshmen Karlee Johnson and Caitlin Dickman in the circle, so their growth will be instrumental. Megan Ward, Lauren Johnson (Univ. of Arizona commit), Katie Park (Virginia) and Kendyl Melton lead the defense and hitting. Xavier invariably find its way back to the Div. I quarterfinals or semifinals.
Players to Watch
Jordan Beck, Red Mountain: After hitting 11 home runs (including a couple big hits in the postseason) last year, the junior catcher/IF is off to another good start in the middle of a strong lineup.
Danielle Block, Desert Vista: Coming back from a 2012 of 18 wins, 1.80 earned run average and 170 strikeouts, the senior again anchors with catcher Ali Cerminara on a Thunder team with six starters back and sights on the postseason.
McKenna Isenberg, Corona del Sol: The talent is there, and if she can find a way to avoid the various injuries that have hampered her, the team’s ace and solid hitter could help Corona get back to postseason runs of a few years ago.
Val Kaff, Mountain View: Arguably as good as any pitcher in the state, she led AZ (unofficially) in shutouts and strikeouts last year, but the Toros have struggled to have a solid backup pitcher, and the wear on Kaff’s arm the past few years has been noticecable by May.
Jillian Leslie, Perry: Her 18 home runs as a junior was a school record, and both her RBI potential and pitching abilities will play a big part in the Pumas’ drive for a deep postseason run. She should have lots of help in this lineup, and if so, the pitching and defense will be what makes the difference.
Dallas McBride, Chaparral: She hit six home runs and drove in 17 runs in the Red Mountain tournament alone in late February, and the junior slugger (New Mexico State commit) has lots of speedy teammates around her.
Kylie Shull, Basha: Part of another good Basha lineup, she drove in 47 runs last year for the Div. I state runners-up and could do it again.
Marisa Stankiewicz, Gilbert: Part of another solid Tigers’ team, the senior has been one of the more clutch hitters for the better part three years, she also doubled as a cheerleader during fall and winter sports.
Tamara Statman, Horizon: Came into her own especially in the second half of last season as the team’s freshman ace (17 wins, 2.76 ERA, 217 K) and is off to a solid start as a sophomore. She’s already verbaled to the University of Arizona and does charity work for the AZ Skin Cancer Foundation.
Maria Valencia, Paradise Valley: A .486 average with eight home runs and 34 RBI as a sophomore, the team’s ace (16 wins, 2.46 ERA in 2012) and a leading hitter may be a junior, but will have plenty of help with six senior starters back from 2012 as the Trojans are poised to make a nice run in Division II
Other players to watch
Apache Junction: Hailey Gonwa, Sr., OF; Catlin McDowell, Jr., P; Adriana Villaverde, Jr., IF; Talon Welk, Jr., IF. Arcadia: Amanda Byler, Sr., IF; Shannon Feeney, Sr., OF; Ana Huff, Jr., P; Danielle Villalpondo, Sr., IF. Basha: Courtney Hiruko, Jr., IF; Hailey Maher, Jr., IF; Nicole Matta, Jr., OF; Hailey Siroky, Jr., C: Kelsey Tidwell, Jr., P. Cactus Shadows: Hanna Caban, So., IF; Taylor Decker, Sr., C; Katie Paoli, So., P. Campo Verde: Amber Ewert, Jr., C/IF; Peyton Garner, Sr., IF; Paige Hess, Jr., IF; Maddi Johnson, Jr., OF; Sam Leighty, Jr., OF. Chandler: Haley Barraza, Sr., IF; Kayla Escobar, Sr., IF; Mona Noriega, Fr., IF; Kalli Ohton, Sr., P. Chaparral: Ashtyn Coleman, Sr., C/OF; Hanna Mehok, Jr., OF. Corona del Sol: Christy Farrell, Sr., IF; Kylie Holmes, Fr., IF; Brianna Schrimpf, Sr., C; Corina Sepulveda, Sr., OF. Coronado: Allison Alvarez, So., IF; Siara Barreras, Sr., P/IF; Ashley McCarty, Sr., P/IF. Desert Mountain: Lexi Pierson, Sr., OF; Skylar Weinstein, Sr., P; Andy Wellins, Sr., P. Desert Ridge: Chryse Hausenfluck, Jr., C; Jackie Hernandez, Sr., IF; Bailey Klitzke, Fr., P; Alyssa Sanchez, Sr., IF. Desert Vista: Michaela Duarte, Jr., OF; Ali Cerminara, Sr., C; Rebecca Perez, Sr., IF; Naomi Ricciotti, Sr., OF. Dobson: Jordan Barajas, Sr., IF; Jamie Lavender, Jr., IF; Alyssa Thibodeau, Jr., OF. Gilbert: Alex Astorga, Jr., OF; Taylor McCord, Jr., C/IF; Dani Nelson, Jr., IF. Gilbert Christian: Melanie Ames, Sr., C/IF; Alex Moffett, Jr., IF. Hamilton: Rayven Cannon, Sr., IF; Vanessa Marquez, Fr., P/IF; Cheyenne Noli, Fr., P; Sam Reynolds, Jr., OF. Highland: Kayla Carter, Sr., IF; Mariah Gonzales, Sr., IF; Cheyenne Moffett, Jr., IF; Andrea Rizzo, Jr., P/IF. Higley: Jenna Coates, Sr., C; Shelby Fisher, Sr., IF; Matti Magee, Sr., IF. Horizon: Katie Gore, Sr., OF; Kaila Jacobi, So., OF; Gabby Moreno, Fr., IF; Margaret Stahm, Sr., IF. Marcos de Niza: Niza Bilducia, Sr., IF; Eryca Garcia, Sr., C/IF; Stephanie Montanez, Sr., OF. McClintock: Shannon Geraty, So., IF; Dian Nordstrom, Jr., IF; Traci Tolon, Sr., IF; Shealynn Zimnick, Jr., P. Mesa: Mercedes Romero, Sr., IF; Alisha Schomoker, So., OF; Amber Smith, Jr., IF. Mesquite: McKensey Madsen, Sr., OF; Laura McLaughlin, Sr., IF; Alexandra Stoltzmann, Sr., P/IF; Claudia Vazquez, Sr., OF. Mountain Pointe: Brooke Burchfield, Sr., OF: Corina Goings, So., IF; Hannah Hoban, So., C; Kristen McCann, So., P. Mountain View: Brittney Lindblom, Jr., OF; Sidney Ryan, Jr., IF; Teddy Yellowman, Jr., IF. Notre Dame: Nicole Affronti, So., IF; Alex Dickey, Fr., OF; Sydnee Hertle, So., C/IF; Hayley Hoffman, So., P; Becca Schiffer, Sr., OF. Paradise Valley: Sidney Coy, Sr., OF; Denali Johnson, Sr., IF; Alexis Nixon, Sr., IF. Perry: Becca Aguallo, Sr., IF; Laynee Gomez, Jr., OF; Brittany Hopper, Jr., IF; Sabrina Nieto, Jr., IF; Devon Ryan, Sr., C. Pinnacle: Bailey Brennan, Jr., P; Willow Kalinen, Sr., OF; Dani Dockx, Jr., IF. Poston Butte: Samantha Castoldi, Sr., IF; Taylor Clark, Sr., C; Emily Lodge, Sr., IF. Queen Creek: Bailey Cornwell, Jr., IF; Ryland Estrada, Sr., IF/OF; Courtney Spurlock, Jr., OF; Lexis Valenzuala, Jr., C/IF. Red Mountain: TJ Beeson, Sr., OF; Ashley Hill, Jr., IF; Bre Macha, Jr., P; Marian Ruf, Jr., P/IF. St. Mary’s: Alyssa Armendariz, Sr., C; Alycea Espinoza, Sr., IF; Alex Gomez, Sr., IF. Saguaro: Macall Maryhew, Jr., IF; Dana Morris, Jr., IF; Jenna Nimtz, Jr., C; Makayla Steele, Jr., OF. San Tan Foothills: Allie Gardner, Sr., C; Tekatrianna Shulte-Evans, Jr., IF. Seton Catholic: Vanessa Flores, Sr., IF; McKenna Wiegand, Sr., OF; Skyline: Kristen Braley, So., OF; Bianca Gonzales, Jr., OF; Taylor Lindley, Sr., C; Corey Pearson, Sr., IF. Tempe Prep: Tierra Ellison, So., P; Caroline Libsock, Sr., P/IF. Valley Christian: Jenelle Hunt, Sr., P; Larae Hunt, Sr., C; Hannah Johnson, Sr., IF; Lexi Kalfas, Sr., IF; Stephanie Ware, Sr., OF. Westwood: Emily Mattison, Sr., OF; Delaney Shields, Sr., IF; Madison Staynor, Jr., C; Paige Yaw, Jr., IF. Williams Field: Gabby Cabellero, Sr., OF; Brittany Heyer, Sr., IF; Michelle Poe, Sr., IF; Trinity Watts, So., OF. Xavier: Caitlin Dickman, Fr., P; Karlee Johnson, Fr., P; Lauren Johnson, Sr., IF; Kendyl Melton, Sr., IF; Katie Park, Sr., C; Megan Ward, Sr., OF.
Seeing red: Red Mountain has won three consecutive Division I state championships, the first big-school in Arizona softball to do so, but will the good times roll? The Lions are well-stocked again, especially with Bre Macha and Marian Ruf both returning to the circle. The Lions’ hitting is solid again, but a lot of defense and speed from the past couple years is gone. The Lions could score No. 4, but a lot of perennial contenders (Basha, Horizon, Gilbert, Mountain Ridge, Mountain View, etc.) aren’t going to be accommodating.
New blood: There is a slew of new coaches at East Valley programs. Lindsey Collins is in charge at Horizon after Brian Casey resigned, as Collins was a former University of Arizona standout player in the early 2000’s. Mesquite’s Gloria Hernandez took over for Jeff Shufelt after being an assistant the previous two years with the Wildcats. Jim Bradford went from Desert Ridge baseball assistant two years ago over to help Mountain Pointe softball (and be the JV football coach), and takes over after Pride softball coach Melissa Wendell stepped down to focus on teaching. Longtime assistant Michael Espinoza is running the St. Mary’s program, and Larry Farina is in charge at Skyline.
Moving forward: Queen Creek’s Ryland Estrada had a junior season unlike most, and not for the better. A year ago last spring, Ryland’s brother, Kyler, served in the Navy overseas but was killed by friendly fire, yet Bulldogs coach Katie Bundy said Ryland never missed a game or practice during this time. She will play at Chandler-Gilbert Community College next fall.
March 7-9: Xavier invitational (at Rose Mofford Complex)
March 9-13: McClintock/Marcos de Niza Invitational (at Macros de Niza H.S. and McClintock H.S.)
March 19-23: Desert Mountain Invitational (at Horizon Park and Desert Mountain H.S.)
April 29: State tournaments begin (Division I and II)
May 1: State tournaments begin (Division III and IV)
May 11: Championship games at Rose Mofford Complex (Division III and IV)
May 13: Championship games at Arizona State (Division I and II)
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.