Watching Amphi play softball, even in a mercy-rule loss to visiting Desert View on Wednesday night, was a smile a minute.
The Panthers play for the love of the game in a genuinely fun, unconventional way that even softball purests have to respect, no matter if the team is 0-5.
One of Amphi’s pitchers throws underhand, not with the fastpitch windup. Senior captain Maliyah Espinoza is like a coach shouting detailed batting instruction from the dugout to her teammates who are new to the game. In one case, Amphi’s second baseman fielded a groundball and flipped to the shortstop for the out at second base — only there was not a runner on first at the time to be forced out.
The Desert View batter reached base on that rare fielder’s choice. The reaction from the Panthers? A good laugh.
“That looked like a good play though,” coach Laura Espinoza-Watson shouted from the dugout among the laughter to her second baseman, who smiled in return.
These are the Good News Bears.
Espinoza-Watson is one of the top softball names in the history of the sport in Tucson, and the nation, really, from her standout career as a slugger at Arizona.
Listed as the head coach at Amphi for the first time this season — although she has coached with the program the last six years — Espinoza-Watson would rather stay undetected to the public.
She is not one who likes attention because she has already lived the life in the spotlight as a legendary Arizona softball player who still holds the NCAA season record for home runs (37) and RBIs (128) in 1995.
She is accustomed to success and being a high-profile member of the softball community coaching the 14U AZ ThunderCats club team that is nationally ranked.
“I don’t like to get interviewed; I don’t like me to be out there,” Espinoza-Watson said.
Shifting the topic from Espinoza-Watson to what she and her coaches, including sister Irma Espinoza-Sonnek (Mariyah’s mother), are trying to do at Amphi is more of what she would rather discuss.
Amphi is literally an inner-city school, deep in the middle of Tucson at Oracle and Prince, with its share of students challenged by living in that area.
Some Amphi students drop out to work minimum-wage jobs to help make ends meet at home. Others are void of motivation to complete academic requirements while trying to survive every day at home or on the streets in the school of hard knocks.
“I can tell you that at Amphi it’s not about — and it’s gonna sound cliché — but it really isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about providing these young ladies an opportunity to play a game that they have seen that they would like to try,” Espinoza-Watson said. “I invite the entire school out whether the kids have played or not and we have so many kids in the program that have never played. I will never refuse them the opportunity to play this game.”
The mood in Amphi’s dugout is not one of being down in the dumps with a winless record and a tough life at home and school.
Quite the opposite.
It’s uplifting. It’s family. It’s believing hardships can be faced with optimism.
The Espinozas are all around feeding into that vibe.
The grandmother/Nana attends every game and sits by the dugout. The sister-in-law of Laura and Irma — Melissa Bugarin-Espinoza — is also part of the coaching staff. Their brother Moe, Melissa’s husband who is on Amphi’s football coaching staff, is always there.
Moe and Melissa’s son Jacob, who played for Amphi’s varsity football team as a freshman and evolved to be one of the best running backs in Southern Arizona, attends the softball games along his sister Isabella (a standout with the 14U ThunderCats).
“Everything that we do, we support each other,” Laura said. “That’s just the way it’s been our entire life, whether we’re coaching or playing. We just we do it together.”
Laura’s son David and daughter Kristiana are Amphi graduates now competing in college. David, a former Arizona football player, is now at Adams State (where Maliyah is headed on a softball scholarship) and Kristiana is one of Arizona State’s top softball players as a freshman.
“This is about community,” Laura said. “You don’t have kids being bussed in or being driven her from across town. This is about the Amphi community, and trying to do something together and sharing in something.
“Both of my kids graduated here and they’ve done very well for themselves. I absolutely have embraced the community here at Amphi. There’s a lot more to this school than people think. It’s not just about winning. It’s about those relationships.”
She takes a genuine interest in the development of the athletes beyond the diamond, evidenced by the work she performs daily at Amphi.
Laura and Irma are involved with Amphi’s unique GEAR UP program that involves assistance with college and career planning after high school.
Among the GEAR UP activities Laura and Irma and others in the program assist the students with:
- Financial aid possibilities including scholarships and FAFSA applications
- Applying to colleges, major selection and college tours
- Helping find resources for technical schools, community colleges and military options
- Students learning more about their interests and strengths
“I feel that that by me being here, I’m able to give these players an opportunity because there are many people who have been around this game, they will not give these kids the time of day,” said Laura, who is married to former Arizona lineman David Watson, who she met while playing for the Wildcats.
“I’ve won my share over the years. I have won over my lifetime. Here is just an opportunity to teach and to really make lasting relationships, and connecting to kids that nobody would give a chance. That’s what I’m most proud of being here. I would never trade these girls. They’re great people. They are fine young ladies, good students. And they are a joy to be around.”
Laura mentioned that other schools have tried to lure Jacob away from Amphi’s football program because of his talents — he was selected in December the AllSportsTucson.com Freshman of the Year among the local 4A region schools.
Those other programs obviously did not do their homework on the background of the Espinoza family and its strong bond with the Amphi community.
“For me, high school is not about sports,” Laura said. “For many, they want to go to the best high school program. For me, the academics is very strong here in the school district. I’ve taught here, and I have also been a parent here. I have been so impressed with our faculty here at Amphi.
“That speaks volumes. I wish that more people in the community when they hear ‘Amphi,’ they would take a minute to educate themselves on the things that Amphi has to offer, versus just whether or not it’s a winning sports program, because it’s not all about that.”
Desert View third baseman Savannah Alvarez went 4 for 4 with two runs and five RBIs in the 19-5 win over Amphi in five innings. She also had a double and stole three bases.
Aneisa Rodriguez, a rightfielder, also produced five RBIs while going 2 for 4 and shortstop Alma Teilon went 3 for 4 with three runs and two RBIs.
Kristal Leyva pitched the five innings and struck out four and walked one while scattering eight hits. The cleanup hitter, she had two hits in her two official at-bats and had three runs and two RBIs.
Desert View improved to 5-4 with the victory.
The Panthers are off for a week because of spring break and they next play March 18 when they take part in the Hayden Invitational.
Desert View is also off until March 22, when it plays at Nogales.
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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.