It’s time to put it all together.
A new softball season featured early surprises and tournaments galore, but the learning and exploration portion of the season will give way to resuming the regular season and power point gauntlet for another month as teams zero in on their lineups, rotations and postseason play beginning in May.
Here’s a quick look at what’s happened, and, more importantly, what may come the next few weeks:
Teams to Watch
Basha: A 26-6 last year ended in disappointment because the Bears didn’t win a state title, but they again could be the team to knock off Red Mountain from its throne. Eight regular contributors are back, many of which are seniors, and the Bears again have a top-notch lineup with the Breland sisters (Brooke and the speedy Briielle), Nicole Matta and Brittany Medina. If the pitching — and Lynnea Klemmedson is experienced — and defense holds ...
Campo Verde: Trying to make a dent in Division II, the Coyotes played well in Red Mountain tournament to begin the season, and five starters (all seniors) return from a team which went through heartbreak after finishing 25th in the power rankings and missing the playoffs by one spot despite a 15-13 overall record (12-6 in power rankings games). Tom Dolan’s team starts with the seniors, but seven sophomores and two freshman are on varsity.
Gilbert: Similar to Basha, Gilbert is always knocking on the title-toting door. The Tigers have a strong lineup and a senior group ready to make the next small step among elite. After a tough first week of the season, Shaundra Gutierrez’s team is starting to play better. A couple good wins already in tow in regular season and tournament play (Xavier, Horizon and Chaparral) face one of tougher schedules the rest of the way.
Hamilton: Significantly improved from last year (15-16) with seven returning starters and a crop of impressive freshman. Sam Reynolds (Mississippi State-commit), Jamie Hatch (UNLV) and Christina Olivas will lead Rocky Parra’s team, but Cheyenne Noli’s development in the circle will be key. Watch out for freshman shortstop Bella Loomis.
Marcos de Niza: What a building project it’s been for Korinne Gomez the past seven years; 6 starters back and a couple senior newcomers could make up for lack of varsity experience in a few places; “Play in May” is the Padres’ theme because the playoffs are a possibility for a program which hasn’t come close to postseason play for a decade.
Queen Creek: With a powerful 3-4 lineup combination in Madi Merrell and Ryann Holmes, and Merrell off to a strong start pitching (1.32 ERA), the Bulldogs again look like a Div. II playoff team. This time, however, a freshman group of Kiersten Denning, Brittaney Benavidez and Maci Richardson will have to play beyond their years moving forward. That’s a reasonable possibility.
Red Mountain: Going for an Arizona record-breaking fifth consecutive state title, they’re again considered favorites in Div. I because of eight starters back from last year’s 38-5 team, starting with three-time state championship pitcher Bre Macha and her battery mate, Jordan Beck.
Skyline: The once-woeful Coyotes have already turned heads under new coach Annie Lockwood by winning the Marcos de Niza-McClintock tournament. Skyline will get a better gauge when it faces more difficult Div. I competition beginning in mid-April, but, regardless, how would a playoff appearance feel after having three coaches in three years and nary a winning record since 2010.
Valley Christian: 16-7 last year with four starters returning in Div. IV, but 80 percent of the roster consists of either freshman or sophomores, led by Hailee Heeringa, Grace Blevins and Mara Kemmer. Time will tell if losses to higher-level competition early this season prove beneficial later. It certainly will for the next couple years.
Players to Watch
Makenzie Bates, Corona del Sol: An All-City pitcher last year, Bates takes over full-time pitching duties with the graduation of Makenna Isenberg, and she’ll be doing so in front of one of the youngest teams in Division I.
Jordan Beck, Red Mountain: The power hitter has been clutch (regular season and postseason) her entire career, and a 4-for-4 state title success rate in high school is within reach.
Sami Galvez, Williams Field: The junior slugger is one of five starters back for the Black Hawks under new coach Jay Smith, but this is still a young team, and Galvez, Cassidee Weingert and Trinity Watts will need to come up big a lot.
Paige Hess, Campo Verde: The senior shortstop already has five home runs and 18 RBI to put her among the Div. II offensive leaders. Headed to Sienna College next year for softball,
Bre Macha, Red Mountain: She’s already a 3-time state championship winning pitcher and a force in the middle of the Lions’ lineup with on-base and power-hitting skills. Another state title puts her alone in a couple Red Mountain pitching record books.
Madi Merrell, Queen Creek: A perennial playoff team, the Bulldogs have been stopped short of a deeper run in recent seasons. With Merrell pitching (1.32 ERA so far this season), a .500 average, six home runs and 21 RBI, she could be the one to lead the Bulldogs into the “beyond.”
Dani Nelson, Gilbert: One of several top players in the East Valley on Gilbert’s squad, the senior shortstop is headed to Arizona State, but her five home runs and early season-defense suggest she and her senior teammates would like to play a long time in May.
Sidney Ryan, Mountain View: One of the elite power hitters in the East Valley the past four years. She hit 10 home runs as a sophomore and bumped that figure up to 14 as junior. The Toros are in transition this year after a couple years of deep state tournament runs, but if Sidney gets some lineup protection, enjoy the view when she launches those towering softballs seemingly a mile high.
Sam Reynolds, Hamilton: A four-year starter through a couple coaching changes, she again sets the tone atop the Huskies’ lineup one more time before heading to Mississippi State. A state tournament run first would be welcome for a program which enjoyed brief success but fell short of the playoffs last year.
Hailee Siroky, Basha: Another come-through-in-the-clutch catcher in the East Valley (similar to Beck), Siroky is off to a fast start. It’s hard to pick a most dangerous hitter in this dangerous lineup, but she’s as good as any of them.
Other Players to Watch
Apache Junction: Alyssa Padilla (Fr.); Adrianna Villaverde (Sr.); Basha: Briielle Breland (Sr.); Brooke Breland (Jr.); Lynnea Klemmedson (Sr.); Hailey Maher (Sr.); Nicole Matta (Sr.); Brittany Medina (Sr.); Campo Verde: Amber Ewert (Sr.); Maddi Johnson (Sr.); Sam Leighty (Sr.); Naomi Martinez (So.); Chandler: Sydney Behrens (So.); Sharilyn Sakamoto (Jr.); Chandler Prep: Cassandra Guidice (Sr.); Glory Polley (Sr.); Reagan Stromback (Sr.); Emily Weber (Sr.); Corona del Sol: Alyssa Alan (So.); Kylie Holmes (So.); Sarah McCabe (Jr.); Gilbert: Alex Astorga (Sr.); Lynsey Duncan (Jr.); Taylor McCord (Sr.); Hamilton: Rachel Foote (So.); Bella Loomis (Fr.); Highland: Madi Barton (So.); Ashley Davis (So.); Micki Williams (Sr.); Higley: Avery Boccella (So.), Mackenzie Magee (Sr.), Bailey Skipper (Sr.); Marcos de Niza: Rachel Gawdun (Jr.); Korynn Molina (Sr.); Alexis Ratliff (So.); Mikaela Rodriguez (So.); McClintock: Mary Mentz (Jr.); Shealynn Zimnick (Sr.); Mesquite: Kylie Bandura (Fr.); Caroline Chilton (Fr.); Taylor Cullen (Fr.); Corrina Gallegos (Sr.); Brittany Holland (So.); Kylie Ridge (So.); Mountain View: Brittany Lindblom (Sr.); Page Roberts (Sr.); Sydney Smith (Sr.); Teddy Yellowman (Sr.); Perry: Alyssa Barlow (Sr.); Payton Fry (Jr.); Lindsay Heffron (Sr.); Sabrino Nieto (Sr.); Queen Creek: Ryann Holmes (So.); Lexi Valenzuela, (Sr.); Red Mountain: Ashley Hill (Sr.); Marian Ruff (Sr.); Tori Sotelo (Jr.); Alex Wiley (Jr.); San Tan Foothills: Tekatrianna Schulte-Evans (Sr.); Schyler Johnson (Jr.); Valley Christian: Grace Blevins (So.); Natalie Denk (Jr.); Hailee Heeringa (So.); Westwood: Kelsey Ayre (Fr.); Elisha Burbank (Fr.); Stacia Seeton (So.); Savannah Shields (So.); Williams Field: Amber Casarez (Jr.); Sammie Galvez (Jr.); Delaney Nance (So.); Trinity Watts (Jr.); Cassidee Weingert (Jr.)
Did You Know?
• New coaches are off to a mixed bag in the East Valley (not that a coach should be judged after a month, let alone a full season). The biggest splash so far has been at Skyline, which hired former Paradise Valley and Arizona State standout Annie Lockwood and already has the Coyotes nearing last year’s win total. Jay Smith is now in control at Williams Field, Jamey Henry is the new Chandler coach after longtime coach Kim Higginbotham moved over to coach Chandler-Gilbert Community College. Former McClintock assistant Sammi Hernreich takes over the Chargers after longtime coach Kerry Reeder joined Higginbotham as an assistant at CGCC, while further down in Chandler Richard Martinez is the new coach at Chandler Prep.
• Red Mountain’s fourth consecutive state title is the most in the biggest school classification in Arizona, but the Lions would need to win this year to fully separate themselves from the rest of history. A few other schools have won four consecutive softball championships: Chaparral (1995-1998 as Class 4A school) did it most recently. Seton Catholic did it twice (2002-2005 as 3A school and 1996-1999 as 2A school), and, up north, Winkelman Hayden (1986-1989 in 2A) and Joseph City (2000-2003 in 1A) also won four in a row.
• Tempe’s Mary Morton is the third generation to play softball at Tempe in her family. Her teammate, Regina Matuz, is back on the field this year after having a child of her own.
April 30: Regular season ends
May 3: State tournaments begin (Div. I and II at higher seed; Div. III and IV at Rose Mofford Softball Complex)
May 16: State semifinals (at Rose Mofford)
May 17: State championships (Div. III and IV at Rose Mofford)
May 19: State championships (Div. I and II at Arizona State)