West Valley Preps
TEMPE – From the start, it did not lot seem like their night. And in the end, it was not.
In the middle of the 5A state softball title game, No. 2 seed Centennial showed the resolve and skill set that got it there for the first time in nine years. It was not enough to overcome an odd and mistake-filled opening or crucial errors in the final inning.
Tied 2-2 with the Coyotes entering the seventh, No. 3 Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge brought its bats and took advantage of two Centennial errors to win 5-2 at ASU’s Farrington Stadium.
“We knew two runs wasn’t going to be enough. That’s a very good team over there and they hit the ball really well and have good athletes,” Ironwood Ridge coach David Martinez said. “We didn’t have to hit home runs. We had to get on base and put pressure on their defense and make them throw the ball around.”
Ironwood Ridge (26-5) senior Keira Painter led off the seventh with a single. Junior Kayla Keith rocketed an RBI double just past a diving Dren Meginnis to break the tie.
Junior pitcher Mariah Lopez entered in relief to face a team she pitched against for Vail Cienega in the 2018 title game. Two errors led to another Nighthawks run and senior Diana Nisbett added an RBI double for a 5-2 advantage.
Painter then ran down a deep drive to right by freshman Adyson Maya to begin the bottom of the seventh, which cut off a Centennial (21-7) rally before it could start.
Before the Nighthawks’ final inning heroics, the most notable moments of this game were a bevy of illegal pitch calls against Centennial senior starter Sydnie Sahhar.
One came into play in a first inning that should have been as easy as 1-2-3. Sahhar induced two lineouts and got a pop fly from senior Jaiden Reid – but two Coyotes outfielders ran into each other and eventually dropped the ball.
Sahhar regrouped and appeared to have struck out Nisbett, but the first illegal pitch call kept her alive. Nisbett promptly hit an infield single off Sahhar’s leg.
A dropped pop up allowed the Nighthawks to score without having produced much offense.
“I think that first inning we were a little nervous. We weren’t putting the ball in play like we would have liked to. But we should have been out of a couple those innings and we weren’t,” Centennial coach Randy Kaye said. “They took advantage of it. That’s what good teams do.”
The title game remained weird into the second. Four more illegal pitch calls prolonged the top of the inning, but Sahhar got out of it.
She picked up an out to start the third. But yet another illegal pitch forced Kaye’s hand and he brought sophomore Meghan Golden on in relief despite trailing only 1-0 in the third inning.
“You look at a kid like Sydnie, who all year long kept grinding and grinding. For her to come out here and things go the way they did, I was proud of her. She just kept looking over at me and getting the sign and moving forward. As much as it hurt me to take her out I thought it was the right move. She stayed with it and helped in other ways,” Kaye said. “Once against Empire, they called it a little bit. They called it a couple of times at Casteel but they called it on both pitchers. It really hasn’t been a problem until this game. That was tough. If it’s happening then they’ve got to call it. They said she was leaping, and seemed to be really focused on it.”
Maya made an over-the-shoulder catch for the second out in the third. Nisbett got a hold of a Golden pitch and deposited it over the left field fence for a 2-0 Nighthawks lead.
For the next three innings, however, Golden held the Ironwood Ridge lineup down. She escaped a two-on, no-out situation in the fifth.
“Meghan’s grown. She’s been thrown into the fire,” Golden said. “She’s been a great teammate all season and a great player to coach.”
Meanwhile, junior Shelby Thompson was unscathed through three innings. Martinez said he alternates starting pitchers between Thompson and senior Frankie Lucio and it was Thompson’s turn.
Centennial broke through with one out in the third. Senior Dren Meginnis and Golden hit back-to-back singles. Sahhar drove Meginnis in and was safe on a fielding error.
Then in the fifth, junior Jaydin Gonzalez bunted for a hit, and Maya sacrifice bunted her over to second. Senior Hailey Galvez tied the game on an RBI bloop double just over the shortstop’s head.
The Nighthawks regrouped before the seventh.
“I told the girls in the huddle, we’ve waited a whole year to get back into this game and we need to take advantage of the opportunity. Not a lot of teams get this opportunity two years in a row,” Martinez said. “They’ve been here. They’re experienced and they understand when it’s winning time.”
Centennial also was motivated by its loss to Cienega last year, in the semifinals.
Galvez, Meginnis, Sahhar and catcher Makenzie Celaya have been the foundation of Coyote softball’s revival and will be sorely missed. But there is enough coming back to use this frustrating night as fuel for a future playoff drive.
“We have a lot coming back. We’ll be able to move some kids around. I mean, it’s really hard to replace a couple of those kids – Makenzie, Dren, Hailey and Sydnie – but I’ll take it as a challenge, just like when Sydnie went down that first year. We’re going to do it with what we have. I’m ready to figure it out,” Kaye said.
And in the end, this night’s errors and umpiring cannot dampen what this group accomplished. The 2019 Coyotes were the school’s first team not coached by Hall of Famer Bartt Underwood to reach a state title.
And they balanced determination and fun – chants, pool noodles and leis in the dugout – along the way.
“Our dugout is live and fun. They’re a great group of kids to be around. They went all out and made the big heads and everything. They enjoyed the moment. We were in the moment – it just didn’t work out today,” Kaye said.