Empire rides ace Freidinger’s pitching, 15 hits to 3A semifinal win over Yuma Catholic

Empire is on a 10-game winning streak heading into the 3A championship game (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Empire ace Kendall Freidinger is closing in on elite status among Southern Arizona pitchers historically, approaching 300 strikeouts in a season with an ERA of 0.58 in 133 innings.

That’s in Kenzie Fowler (CDO), Megan Ellsworth (Benson) and Nicole Conway (Catalina Foothills) territory.

And Freidinger (pronounced Fry-den-ger) is only a sophomore.

Her 14 strikeouts with no walks in a complete-game performance Tuesday contributed to No. 2 Empire’s 9-1 win over No. 3 Yuma Catholic in the 3A semifinal game at Amphitheater High School.

“I’m a sophomore so it was a surprise I was going to be starting a lot this year, but as I go on more, my team is backing me up, and our hitting is getting stronger and stronger,” said Freidinger, who scattered four hits and the run scored by Yuma Catholic was unearned.

“I’m looking forward to the future here.”

Empire (29-1) will play No. 1 Sabino (29-3) — its 3A South rival — in the state championship game at Arizona’s Hillenbrand Stadium on Tuesday (time to be announced).

The game was originally slated for ASU’s Farrington Stadium on Saturday, but according to Empire coach Shannon Woolridge, the game will be played at Hillenbrand on Tuesday instead because two Southern Arizona teams are pitted against each other.

“Honestly, we’re going to approach it with nothing to lose,” said Woolridge, whose team’s lone loss was 2-1 at Sabino on April 4. It was the only meeting between the two schools during the regular season.

“They’ve got all the experience,” Woolridge added. “They start as many as six seniors. We start five, sometimes six, sophomores. We’re young and we’re going to come out firing. That’s for sure. We’re going to be ready.”

Freidinger was 4-1 with a 4.32 ERA last year in 34 innings as a freshman. She recorded 56 strikeouts and seven walks.

She is 21-1 with a 0.58 ERA and 283 strikeouts with 16 walks this season.

“It’s been crazy,” said senior catcher Ariel Schulzkump when asked about working with her batterymate, Freidinger. “I love calling games for Kendall. It’s amazing. Her pitches are always great. It’s so fun behind it and seeing everything happen.

“Getting the opportunity to work with her is awesome … It’s her passion and her drive. Every pitch is on and she does it so well. I just love the intensity, the spin and how much work she puts in on the outside is crazy.”

Fowler had 344 strikeouts when she was a senior in 2009 after Ellsworth amassed 377 in 2008. That was when the pitching distance was 40 feet.

The current distance of 44 feet started in 2011.

Conway had 309 strikeouts in 2018 after producing 302 in 2016.

“I like pressure,” Freidinger said. “Being in that position all the time is what keeps me going.”

Yuma Catholic applied pressure early scoring an unearned run in the top of the first inning to take the early lead.

With one out, Faith Donley hit a double and moved to third on a fielding error. The next batter struck out, which should have been the third out. Yuma Catholic (26-3) set a double-steal in motion and Donley scored from third.

From then on, Freidinger and Empire’s lineup dominated.

Empire tallied 15 hits, 14 of them singles. Six of the singles produced a run, including four in the third inning when Empire built a 4-1 lead.

Morgan Faunce, Schulzkump and Haley Ehlert hit consecutive RBI singles in that rally, which was completed by another run-scoring single by Mariah Fisher.

Faunce’s two-run double in the fourth, that extended the lead to 6-1, was the lone extra-base hit for the Ravens.

“We have the same lineup every game, and we just mesh well together,” said Faunce, a junior first baseman.

Empire’s lineup, amazingly the same all year, and Freidinger will face by far their toughest test in the championship with Sabino.

The Ravens mustered only three hits off another super sophomore — Avery Nielson — in the loss to the Sabercats last month.

Nielson is 18-1 with a 1.18 ERA with 151 strikeouts and 35 walks in 106 2/3 innings this season.

“Winning that championship means leaving a legacy at Empire, and that’s something I’m really excited to do because our athletics aren’t normally recognized,” said Faunce, whose school shares the Vail School District with Cienega and Mica Mountain.

“I feel like we’re underappreciated sometimes. I feel like this is showing the world who we are and what we can do.”


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.

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