A miniature youth movement got underway this summer in the human resources department at two East Valley high schools, and it has nothing to do with the ages of incoming freshmen.
Those three schools — Skyline and Desert Vista this summer, Chaparral two years ago — made a proverbial leap in softball circles and hired new coaches whose playing backgrounds are quite impressive, but whose coaching backgrounds barely made it to print.
Fourteen months ago, Annie Lockwood had morphed from All-State player at Paradise Valley, to an All-American helping Arizona State win a national championship. Three months ago she was an undergraduate student assistant coach with the Sun Devils. Last week, she became Skyline’s new softball coach and special education teacher.
K’Lee Arredondo was an elite player at Tempe and McClintock high schools until she graduated in 2006, then starred at the University of Arizona. Two springs ago she latched on as an assistant for Jeep Ray at Corona del Sol. Last week she returned to her native-Ahwatukee as Desert Vista’s new coach.
Each knows the coaching and psychology learning curves with teenagers will be steep as they try to earn respect from their kids, but having played for, and learned from, two of the most successful coaches in college softball (former ASU coach Clint Myers and Arizona coach Mike Candrea), it might not take long.
Lockwood, 23, always wanted to teach and coach long before she was doing camps in college. The name recognition and accolades alone got Mesa district’s attention. She was at the Women’s College World Series in late May when a couple Mesa teenagers randomly came up to her and asked if she was Skyline’s new coach, two months before she was actually hired by the school.
“I asked myself if I was prepared for this. ‘Can I handle it?’” Lockwood said of the upcoming transition. “The line between player and coach is pretty thick, but I feel pretty prepared for this based on what I learned and have been around in my life. It’ll be hard seeing me as a 22- or 23-year-old adult and not seeing me as their friends. They’re going to know they can come to me about anything, but I’m an adult here to teach and coach.”
Arredondo, 25, grew up in a household of coaches (her mom coached softball for nearly a decade in the Tempe district), but, unlike Lockwood, didn’t have her heart set on this as a youth. She’s currently a police officer, and after doing camps at U of A, helping a couple area club teams, the chance at Corona del Sol came along in 2011. That led to running the Thunder program.
For both Lockwood and Arredondo, their recent playing successes, camp instructions over the years and getting toes wet as an assistant trumped candidates with deeper coaching experience.
“Age on any level doesn’t matter,” Arredondo said. “Essentially you’re in charge and they have to know that, but you have to gain their respect. No matter the level it’s about respect and trust. If you get those nobody’s age matters.”
Two years ago, Chaparral hired 25-year-old Stefanie Ewing, who was an assistant at Butler for one season after she starred at Oregon State, then returned to the Valley and coached middle school kids (many of whom had never played softball) when the Firebirds hired her before the 2012 season.
The Firebirds have succeeded on the field, including a state championship game appearance this spring, but not without plenty of trials and tribulations, and a couple veteran high school assistants around her.
“It’s not the on-field stuff but are you ready for the off-the-field stuff?” Ewing said. “It’s really hard, depending on most situations, to go by the seat of your pants. You make the rules now. As a coach you have to set up expectations and consequences but when they arise you have to go through with it.
“There’s no doubt they know a ton about softball. You can watch and soak in so much from (Myers and Candrea), but I don’t think it’s going to be that way. They should implement their own way using those drills or philosophies.”
In time, things could work out as well for Desert Vista — which is coming off its most successful season in school history — and a Skyline program which has struggled on the field in recent years.
The “star power” of both coaches from their playing days may resonate with their kids, and both believe their personal and team successes can help them gain that needed respect from their kids.
Both are also aware of the vast difference between playing and coaching, and being an elite player doesn’t always translate into being a great coach.
They’re about to find out early and often.
“Things were said at 18 years old where I hated my coaches sometimes,” Lockwood said. “Now I know why this or that happened or doesn’t happen. It’s going to be a trial-and-error and see how it goes.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.