McFarland family synonymous with winning state championships at Sabino

The Sabino McFarland Twins – Reese (left) and Riley (McFarland photo)

More than 30 years after Chris McFarland made what the family calls “Catching a Dream” in Sabino’s championship over Peoria in the 1990 state championship football game, his niece Reese McFarland leaped high to steal a home run away from an Empire batter in a showdown between the 3A South rivals this season.

Chris’ diving catch, captured by an Arizona Republic photographer, was posted in Sabino’s locker room by coach Jeff Scurran as a motivational tool.

The catch on a third-and-long play set up Manny Olague’s 1-yard touchdown run in the 31-28 Sabino victory.

An Arizona Daily Star clipping of an Arizona Republic photo of Chris McFarland making a diving catch in the win over Peoria in the 1990 state championship game.

Reese’s snare of the long-hit ball to the fence at Sabino preserved the Sabercats’ 2-1 victory April 4 over Empire in a battle of the two best 3A teams in the state.

“We had the lead and they started coming back and then I had this amazing catch that robbed them of home run and kept them from taking the lead,” Reese recalled. “I ended up breaking a finger doing it, but it was all worth it.”

Reese, who hit the finger against the fence, stumbled when she landed but still had enough strength and presence of mind to get the double-play out of the runner trying to get back to first base on the play.

She played sparingly in the last two weeks of the regular season to let the finger heal before Sabino started challenging for its third straight softball title in the postseason.

The No. 1 Sabercats (29-3) will face No. 2 Empire (29-1) in the 3A championship Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Reese will start in centerfield and her fraternal twin sister Riley will be in left field.

“That is going to be one fun game to play,” Reese said. “It’s going to be super tight but I always love looking into the stands and seeing multiple rows being taken up by my family.

“It’s just so exciting to always be able to point out our family in the stands being probably the biggest cheering section in the stands because there’s so many of them.”

Shawn McFarland when he was a senior running back/linebacker for Sabino in 1993 (Tucson Citizen photo)

Shawn McFarland, their father and another standout for Scurran as part of Sabino’s 1990 and 1992 state championship teams, anticipates 15 to 20 family members will sit together in one section of Hillenbrand.

Scurran said in a 1992 Arizona Daily Star article after the Sabercats defeated Phoenix Washington for the state championship that Shawn executed a “typical McFarland play” in a victory in the second game of the season when Sabino played at powerhouse Waianae (Hawaii).

“Shawn breaks a (31-yard) run for a touchdown, and as the defense is closing in on him at the 4, he leaps headfirst into the end zone to make sure the defense has no chance of tackling and puts the game away,” Scurran said.

“Everybody standing there on the sideline, coaches and players alike, looked at each other said, ‘Typical McFarland play.'”

The newspaper credited his younger brother Greg with the touchdown, but Shawn never discussed it, according to Scurran. Greg was a sophomore that season and Shawn a junior.

“Shawn never complained about Greg getting his stats,” Scurran said in the Star article. “It’s not the McFarland way.”

Shawn was part of the 1990 and 1992 state championship teams at Sabino, and his daughters have won state titles the last two years with the Sabercats. His son Cade also played basketball at Sabino and son Calen was a football player at Sahuaro.

The McFarland Family

The family has accumulated championship rings and numerous accolades, including Riley and Reese also earning hardware during their competitive cheer days in elementary school and middle school.

Shawn said a shrine of the family’s achievements at their house does not exist.

“We know our accomplishments and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s fun to talk about, but they’re not on display.”

It’s not the “McFarland Way.”

“My mom always tells me, ‘We’re no better than anyone else,'” Greg said in the 1992 Star article. “Everyone’s important in their own way.”

Reese and Riley will extend their softball careers at Eastern Arizona College after Tuesday’s championship game.

Their grandmother lives within a couple of miles of EAC’s campus in Thatcher and the Gila Monsters will play games at Pima.

Plenty of opportunities for the family to continue watching Reese and Riley play softball, a sport they have played together for the last 13 years.

Sabino’s Riley McFarland (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“Either I’m looking up to Reese, and she’s helping me with what to do, or I’m helping Reese with what she’s struggling with,” Riley said of the long-standing relationship they have built on the field. “It’s definitely about helping each other, holding each other accountable and making sure we’re doing the best that we can.

“We know what each other is capable of doing. I think that’s the best part about it.”

Reese said it was a package deal to play at Eastern Arizona.

“If we weren’t going to play together, then it was probably not going to be an option anymore,” Reese said about both continuing their careers in college.

They have a history of working in tandem, from writing speeches together for church to deciding on what high school to attend when they were promoting from eighth grade.

Sabino’s Reese McFarland (Andy MOrales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“We were definitely considering our options of where to go for high school,” Reese said. “We just actually left competitive cheer (after a six-year run), and we were looking to joining softball again (following a two-year hiatus).

“(Former Sabino pitcher) Riley Nielsen was a good family friend of ours, and we heard that they had a very successful season with winning state (in 2019). So that was definitely a pull for us going to Sabino. We were definitely hoping to get at least one ring out of it. But we have two so far and shooting for that third one.”

Shawn relives his memorable Sabino days through his daughters every time he returns to campus to cheer them on.

“It’s a lot of fun to think about the people who are still kind of involved at Sabino who are now there with my girls or around my girls,” he said. “They were there when I was there. There’s still a few coaches not actively coaching but that are still at Sabino. Teachers there have limited roles there but they have an interest in Sabino.

“It’s a lot of fun to share those memories. They get to go in there and see the Sabino Hall of Fame and see our football teams. When their kids go there, they’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s grandpa and there’s mom.’ It’s a neat experience. It’s fun to keep the family tradition going.”

Another son, Ryker, who is 12 years old, is contemplating becoming part of the family’s Sabino legacy in athletics.

“He talks about all kinds of schools but we’re not sure where he wants to go yet,” Shawn said. “He’s got two years to figure it out.”

The McFarland Way includes being competitive to the point some board games are banned in the house, including Monopoly, Shawn quipped.

Riley and Reese acknowledged they would not be high achievers in softball and academics without the other because they push each other to succeed through their competitive and supportive nature.

Reese is batting .291 with four home runs and 20 RBIs. Riley is at .450 with 16 doubles, four triples, four home runs and 36 RBIs.

Reese has a 4.50 weighted GPA and is interested studying either architecture, criminal justice or dentistry (Shawn practices dentistry and has owned his own dental office in Tucson since 2007).

Riley has a 4.00 GPA and is interested in architecture, business, sales and criminal justice. 

“The feeling of winning is something we really love sharing,” Riley said. “Also, when it comes to individual competition, we all want to win. It really pushes us to do our best in whatever we do because we know what each other is capable of. It’s really great. I love it so much.”

Cyndi Cubillas and her coaching staff at Sabino will count on the McFarland twins one last time Tuesday against Empire to help the Sabercats win their fourth consecutive state championships overall.

Sabino captured the 3A state title last year at ASU’s Farrington Stadium with an 8-0 win over Winslow and in 2021 at Hillenbrand Stadium with a 4-1 triumph over Payson.

A year before the McFarlands arrived at Sabino, the Sabercats earned the 2019 title with a 14-2 victory over Snowflake at ASU.

Spring sports were canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19.

Sabino has met Empire in the 3A playoffs in the previous two years, including the epic 15-inning 1-0 win over the Ravens in the 2021 semifinals when Nielson struck out 26 batters and produced a walk-off RBI double.

Nielson’s sister Avery is a sophomore ace pitcher with the Sabercats this season.

Sabino and Empire have been the top two-rated teams in the 3A conference most of the season.

It’s time to “catch a dream” again with the McFarland family and Sabino.

“One of our previous coaches from last year, coach Ena (Madrid), she couldn’t be with us this year, but she had a good point saying, ‘We’re going into that field where U of A is our field at that point. We’re the home team, it’s our field. They’re coming to us. We’ve had this experience before and they haven’t,'” Riley said of the matchup with the Ravens.

“Everyone expected this to be the outcome for the championship game. There’s a reason for it. We are both great teams. I feel like at the end of the day, we have more qualities that make us a championship team, but it always comes down to the game and how we play. I think we’re feeling good, but we’re not feeling super cocky.”

That would not be the “McFarland Way.”


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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