COOLIDGE — Despite the two schools being locked into a rivalry that goes back decades, Florence softball coach Dominic Rice took the time Thursday to approach the Coolidge team huddled for a post-game talk to let them know how impressed he was with their performance.

“I just congratulated them on this week that they had against us,” Rice told PinalCentral. “It’s always big when it’s a rivalry game, and the way the schedule worked out this year it was a rivalry week. So I told them they played really well, and wished them luck heading to the postseason.”

The skipper had a front row seat to what the Bears are capable of, as Florence (3-9, 1-5 in 3A South Central Region) played them on April 13 and Thursday, with Coolidge (9-3, 5-1 in 3A South Central Region) winning both matchups 19-0.

The Gophers caught their rivals at the wrong time. The Bears have found their groove after blowing a lead to American Leadership Academy-Ironwood on April 1. Since then, they are 5-0 and have only given up six runs while scoring 65.

“Our confidence is finally there, we finally have that back,” Coolidge catcher Rheana Ortiz said. “This was our last chance to play Florence, so it felt good to beat them over there and over here.”

Ortiz and Kinsey Garcia both scored four times in as many innings of offense on Thursday, as Kiana Villa struck out 10 over five frames while allowing only three hits and no walks. Villa also hit a laser over the left field fence to bring in three runs.

Megan Fahnholz has a game-high four RBIs for the Bears, with Sabrina Keiser and Nevaeh Quiroz each driving in three for a Coolidge offense that has developed plenty of depth as the season has gone along.

With Florence’s ace pitcher Amaya Guilin out with a quad injury, Rice has been having to rely on some less experienced players in the circle. For both games against Coolidge, Kyley Manchester battled through the Coolidge onslaught to finish each game.

“Especially in a rivalry game, we always have to battle,” Rice said. “She never gave up, and she kept in there. We asked her to just go out there and do what you can, make the defense work for you.”

In the April 13 game, Villa struck out 11 Gophers while only giving up a hit. The performance put her past 100 strikeouts in the season, a cause for celebration among her friends and family who brought confetti for the occasion. Villa now has 113 strikeouts to go with a 2.22 ERA and a team-leading 1.807 OPS.

“She’s got speed and she hits her spots,” Rice said of Villa. “She’s got other off-speed pitched she can throw, so she has a good repertoire over there that she used to her advantage. She really kept us off balance in the box.”

Coolidge High School softball fans knew that ace pitcher Kiana Villa was approaching 100 strikeouts for the 2021 season, so they traveled to Florence on April 13 stocked with confetti and noise-makers to surprise the senior when she reached the mark, which she did in the third inning of the Bears' 19-0 victory.

The Bears now have four more games — two against Thatcher and two against Globe — to strengthen their playoff resume. They are currently ranked 13th in the 3A conference, with 16 teams making it. Giving their 903 record, they’d hoped to be higher than that.

“We’re hoping we can move up a little more. It would be nice to get into the top eight,” said Coolidge coach Dan Aleman. “We’re scoring more and more runs everyday, and we’re shutting everybody down.”

As for Florence, the rest of the season is more about developing good habits to bring into 2022 and beyond.

“We’re getting better as we play and as we practice, but we only have two seniors and two juniors this year. Everyone else are underclassmen,” Rice said. “They’re getting some valuable experience, and hopefully it pays off in the coming years.”

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