COOLIDGE — A pair of Pinal County softball teams with recent history of playoff appearances entered the most important part of the season Tuesday, with Coolidge’s Kiana Villa displaying some of the stuff the Bears hope will take them on another run.
The Coolidge (4-2, 1-0) ace struck out 14 American Leadership Academy-Ironwood (2-2, 0-1) players during the first game of region play, while her counterpart Ella Verdine fanned eight. But behind both pitchers, the Bears made more plays than the Warriors, and the mistakes made a lot of difference as Coolidge won 7-2.
“Kiana pitched really well today. She’s been on one since last Friday’s game,” said Rheana Ortiz, who is filling in at catcher due to an injury to Megan Fahnholz. “She just needs to stay in that motion and she’ll be good.”
Coolidge was particularly dominant early in the game as the Warriors had trouble catching up with Villa’s fastball. ALA managed only one hit in the first three innings. In the fourth inning, Leah Shay led off with a double and later advanced to third before scoring on a Shawnacy Serrano groundball to finally get them on the board.
“She was throwing quality pitches, hitting her spots, and held some of their big hitters down,” ALA coach Mickey Shay said of Villa. “She had a lot of faith in that fastball and she was pumping them in there. We had to attack it more instead of just sitting back, and I think after the first time around some of that intimidation factor wore off.”
The Bears’ scoring came much earlier. Sophomore shortstop Brina Madrid, who impressed with her sturdy defense throughout the game, scored their first run off a groundball by Kinsey Garcia in the bottom of the first inning. Then Jrew McWilliams ran out an infield single to bring in Ortiz. They were in position to do even more damage, but a baserunning miscue led to an inning-ending double play.
Coolidge scored three more runs in the second, as Sakura Keiser led off with a double off the outfield wall, and scored on a deep flyball by Ortiz. That left two runners on base, and both scored when Garcia executed a bunt single that was thrown into the outfield.
“We know we have some good speed, so we figure if we make them make mistakes, we have to capitalize,” said Coolidge coach Dan Aleman. “Let them throw the ball around the field, let’s take a late steal. We have to take advantage of those.”
After giving up their first run, Ortiz got it back in the fifth by driving in Karen Garcia with a sharp single past a diving Warrior. Then in the next inning, Villa doubled off the warning track, and her pinch runner Morgan Powers scored on another double by Precious Skinner to bring in Coolidge’s seventh run.
The warrior really started to put some pressure on beginning in the sixth inning. With one out, they strung together three straight singles to load the bases. The Coolidge defense stepped up after that, though, and made a force out at home before Ortiz caught a pop-up at the plate to get the team out of the jam.
Then in the seventh inning, three Bears misplayed a shallow pop-up, and Stephanie Maack doubled the run home with no outs. Villa apparently decided enough was enough with that comeback attempt, because she got the next three batters to strike out swinging to end the game.
“With the five errors, I think competing and getting that score was actually pretty good,” Shay said. “She’s probably the best pitcher in the region. She doesn’t miss much.”
ALA is returning only three players from last-years severely shortened season, so Shay doesn’t know what to expect this year. So far before facing Coolidge, they were putting a lot of runs on the board by staying aggressive with their swings and adding some effective small-ball technique, but this senior-less squad has plenty more to figure out.
“I don’t have a lot of club players, so we’re doing a lot of IQ work, and that takes a while to set in,” Shay said. “There were a lot of experience plays that can be fixed.”
Coolidge, meanwhile, has a combination of an inexperienced outfield with some seniors who are ready to win right away. They had some ups and downs during their non-region schedule where they traveled around the state playing some high-profile schools. Ortiz credited that schedule with showing the team how to handle adversity while getting to see some variety in pitching.
“They’re confident that as long as we do our job, they can overcome whatever,” Aleman said. “I think we’re letting people hang around too long, but they’re starting to see we’re letting off the gas a little bit and giving the other teams hope that they can put a couple hits together and get back in it. Once we stop doing that, I think we’ll be fine.”