QUEEN CREEK — Tears were shed and many consoling hugs were shared, but the night did not end with a sense of loss for Sunnyside’s Majors softball team.
A feeling of togetherness took over late Thursday night like it usually does in the close-knit Sunnyside community, which is comprised of families co-existing of all ages from nanas and tatas to cousins to lifelong friends.
Sunnyside’s time together on what was a difficult night concluded with team and family bonding at a Queen Creek establishment called Fat Cats that included a flurry of activity — dining, bowling, miniature golf and an arcade.
“We’ve got a lot of softball left in life,” Sunnyside manager Henry Pacho said. “You can’t get down when things like this happen. It makes you a great player. You don’t like the feeling, you come back and work harder and harder.”
The 6-5 walk-off win for Cave Creek Cactus Foothills over Sunnyside for the Arizona Little League state championship at Desert Mountain Park at first was stunning for the players and the throng of family members from Tucson’s southside who attended.
Shortly thereafter, however, a chant of “Sun-ny-side, Sun-ny-side, Sun-ny-side,” was heard with the same vigor as its families shouted during the intense game.
Pacho requested that both teams combine for a photo not only for sportsmanship but also to show they belonged on the same stage.
Cactus Foothills advances to the West Regional that starts next week at San Bernardino, Calif. Talking with a mic through a loudspeaker at Desert Mountain Park, Pacho bid Cactus Foothills good luck and told them to represent Arizona well in the tournament that is one step away from the Little League World Series.
Located north of Phoenix, the Cactus Foothills Little League program started only five years ago with a total of 30 girls in all of the age divisions.
“It took some special parents to work together to build what we have now — we have close to 200 girls now playing softball,” said coach Brett Cundall, who is also the Director of Softball for the organization that has produced all-star teams competing in the 8-9-10, 9-10-11 and Majors state tournaments this summer.
“A program like Sunnyside, they’ve been to the Little League World Series and won it (in 2013). That’s what we aspire to do. So it’s fun to see a team like Sunnyside and compete against a team like this that has great coaches, respectful, classy kids and great families. This is what Little League softball should be all about.”
Cactus Foothills beat Sunnyside two of the three games they faced each other in the tournament, but each game was challenging. Cactus Foothills scored 17 runs to Sunnyside’s 14 combined in those games. Sunnyside forced a deciding game for the championship with Wednesday’s 3-1 victory over Cactus Foothills.
Before facing Sunnyside in the winner’s bracket final last Friday, Cactus Foothills outscored its first three opponents 36-0.
“Both teams came out to play,” Pacho said. “You can’t take nothing away from (Cactus Foothills). They’re a good squad. They came through when they needed to. They got some great hits and moved runners. Hey, they deserve it. They earned it.
“Nothing is given. We made them earn everything that they have right there on the scoreboard.”
Sunnyside overcame a 3-0 deficit, a result of three costly errors, through the first two innings by scoring three runs in third.
They produced five hits in the rally, including run-producing singles by Alexa Cirerol (who had the walk-off RBI against Phoenix Arcadia on Tuesday night in the elimination-bracket final), Camila Vargas and Anyssa Pacho (Henry’s daughter).
Cactus Foothills regained the lead in the bottom of third on an RBI single by pinch-hitter Ava Fossey, who proved to be significant during her team’s winning rally in the sixth.
Sunnyside’s two-run rally in the fifth that gave it a 5-4 lead began when Yzenia Escarcega led off with a single and moved to third on a single by Carissa Palomarez, who advanced to second on the throw from right field trying to get Escarcega out at third.
Escarcega was thrown out at home on a grounder to shortstop by Vargas, and Anyssa Pacho followed with another grounder to third base. This time the throw got away from the catcher and Palomarez and Vargas (who never stopped running) scored on the play.
“It was a tough, tough game,” Henry Pacho said of the back-and-forth scoring. “We have nothing to be ashamed about.”
After Cactus Foothills was retired in order in the fifth by Anyssa Pacho, it rallied in the bottom of the sixth starting with a leadoff triple by Fossom, who was replaced by sister Ava Fossom as the pinch-runner. Jordynne Orozco reached on a fielder’s choice bunt with the throw made to home that kept Ava Fossom on third.
Caylee Cundall then singled up the middle to score Ava Fossom and tie the game at 5. Orozco ran to third on the play.
Bria Belden followed with a fly ball to right field deep enough to score Orozco on the sacrifice for the walk-off win.
“These girls, they just have no fear in them,” Brett Cundall said of Cactus Foothills, who also advanced to the West Regionals in 2019 in the Majors division. “At the end of the game, when I looked into their eyes, they had a different look like they felt like they were going to do this, they were going to win.
“Last night (in the 3-1 loss to Sunnyside), they didn’t have that look. Tonight, they had the confidence that they never gave up when they fell down late in the game.”
Anyssa Pacho pitched another credible game for Sunnyside striking out four and walking only one in her 5 1/3 innings that included 96 pitches. Cactus Foothills scored only three earned runs against her.
Cactus Foothills ace Lilly Hamel did not start but she came in with one out in the fifth and was effective. She did not allow a hit and struck out three with no walks in 1 2/3 innings. Hamel and starter Lexi Honea combined for seven strikeouts and no walks.
“Our kids played a heck of a game; it’s nobody’s fault,” Henry Pacho said. “(Cactus Foothills) came out on top at the end. That’s the advantage when you are the home team, you get the last at-bats. They came out and did what they were supposed to do. That was a great game between two very good teams.”
The “Sun-ny-side, Sun-ny-side, Sun-ny-side” chant could be heard behind Henry Pacho when he talked.
A majority of the team, as part of the Arizona Roadrunners club team, will play in a tournament in Sierra Vista on Saturday and Sunday.
Palomarez, a Junior Olympic swimmer, will attempt to play with the Roadrunners in addition to competing in a state swimming event in the butterfly at Goodyear this weekend.
The page is turned. Life goes on for Sunnyside’s players and families.
“Little League is fun for these girls,” Henry Pacho said. “The girls came out this summer to have fun and mingle with their friends who are not on club teams. They do it for the enjoyment while representing Sunnyside. It’s a lot of pressure for the girls and I understand them being down and sad and crying, but in the end, it is still just a game.
“They’ll move on and they’ll grow from it.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District