CHAMPIONSHIP NOTEBOOK: Successful Vail schools show surge in softball talent in area

Empire is going after its third state title Saturday when it faces Valley Christian in the 3A championship at ASU (Empire photo)

Empire will attempt to win its third state championship Saturday night when it faces Valley Christian in the 3A state championship at ASU’s Farrington Stadium at 7.

Mica Mountain came a game away from playing for the 4A state title against Canyon del Oro. The Thunderbolts, who emerged from the elimination bracket, beat Salpointe in the first semifinal game Thursday but fell short in the second game, 10-1.

The Lancers will go for their sixth consecutive state title Saturday night at 7 when they play longtime rival CDO at Hillenbrand Stadium.

Cienega led Willow Canyon 1-0 in the 5A elimination-bracket final on Wednesday but lost 2-1 following a walk-off home run.

Empire, Mica Mountain (in only its fourth season of existence) and Cienega are all within a three-mile radius of each other in Vail.

That area is a hotbed for softball talent, indicative of how strongly players are developed in this area starting at a young age.

Salpointe coach Tricia Sztan, going for her third straight state title in the same amount of time she has led her alma mater, talked about the talent level in this area when mentioning the much-anticipated matchup of the fourth-seeded Lancers (30-4) and No. 3 Dorados (33-2) at Hillenbrand.

Before Salpointe’s five-year run as 4A state championships, CDO won the title in 2017 — head coach Kelly Fowler’s third championship leading the Dorados.

“I think we’ve been grinding all year for this matchup; I would guess CDO would say the same thing,” Sztan said after Salpointe beat Mica Mountain in the second game Thursday. “It’s exciting for these very strong softball schools to face off one more time (CDO is 3-0 this season against Salpointe).

“It’s just a nice picture of Southern Arizona softball and how strong they are. Mica Mountain’s a very strong team. Sahuarita was a great team. It’s just nice to see all of that Southern Arizona softball represented throughout the state.”


Shannon Woolridge is one of the top softball coaches in the state, going after his third championship with Empire (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Empire is in the 3A state title again after losing to Sabino last season, a loss that still stings the Ravens and motivates them for another opportunity to bring home the trophy.

Last year’s game against the Sabercats (who won 5-2 at Cherry Field) restarted from the beginning after rain washed away the previous matchup at Hillenbrand when Empire led 1-0 in the second inning with runners on first and second base.

According to an AIA bylaw, a game must go 4 1/2 or 5 innings to be considered a suspended game. A game that does not go at least 4 1/2 innings is a no contest.

The first scheduled game between Empire and Sabino was rained out after there was no tarp on the Hillenbrand infield. The second day, coaches, players, media and others helped tarp the field after rain started to heavily fall. The game was then stopped in the second inning.

Salpointe and Phoenix Greenway played in the 4A state championship later that night after rain subsided enough for the field to be playable.

Empire coach Shannon Woolridge commented about the situation: “As an association, we’ve got to do better.”

“These kids deserve better; we should’ve been better prepared for the rain earlier this week. We weren’t,” Woolridge added about a lack of a field crew at Hillenbrand. “Tuesday’s field didn’t get tarped. Wednesday’s field, the kids were tarping it themselves. … The emotional rollercoaster these kids went on this week … we just need to do better by them.”

Empire (27-5) went 10-0 in the 3A South this season with a junior-heavy lineup and pitching rotation that includes catcher Abby Zsitvay (.500, eight home runs, 41 RBIs), shortstop Angelina Dehler (.481, five home runs, 12 doubles, 42 RBIs), third baseman Eva Peace (.423, nine doubles, 37 RBIs) and ace pitcher Kendall Freidinger (19-1, 0.68 ERA, 214 strikeouts, 17 walks, 103 2/3 innings pitched).

“We’re not going away,” Wooldridge said in terms of his returning talent after last season’s loss to Sabino.

The Ravens also have quality senior leadership from second baseman Callista Drawbaugh (.500, nine doubles, five triples, 49 runs) and first baseman Morgan Faunce (.438, nine home runs, 39 RBIs).

Woolridge led Empire to state championships in 2015 and 2017.


Mica Mountain ace Acelynn-Rose Heston is a pitcher to watch in 2025 and 2026 (Stephanie van Latum/Special to AllSportsTucson.com)

With CDO slated to play softball at the 5A level next season, the new 4A rival for Salpointe will be Mica Mountain, especially with ace Acelynn-Rose Heston in the circle the next two years.

Mica Mountain has talent in its lineup, but it was Heston, only a sophomore, who carried the Thunderbolts on her shoulders.

Their win over Salpointe in the 4A semifinal round Thursday is the most significant victory in the program’s short history.

“We’re going to be better for this next year,” Mica Mountain coach Steve Garcia said of the experience of beating and challenging Salpointe in the semifinals. “That was the talk I had with them. Because of this, that score is not representative of the way we played and the way our season has gone.

“Our thing is to be one of the better teams in Southern Arizona and I think we accomplised that.”

Heston finished 18-7 with a 1.60 ERA in 157 2/3 innings pitched. She struck out 234 and walked only 10. She is also a quality hitter, batting .402 with six doubles and 29 RBIs. She had a home run and four RBIs in the 8-1 elimination-bracket final victory over Phoenix Arcadia on Tuesday.

“I’m gonna get better and my team is gonna get better and we’re gonna go win state next year,” said Heston, who was strong through most of her 13 innings against Salpointe but hit a wall when the Lancers rallied for seven runs in the sixth inning of the second game.

“We need to work on our communication and getting our hitting down,” Heston added. “We need to see the ball better and come after the pitcher.

“I think we’re going to be really good. We’re going to be in a real good spot and Coach Steve is going to take us to the state (championship).”


CDO junior Amelia Streuber will attempt to go 4-0 against Salpointe this season when the teams meet in the 4A state championship Saturday night (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Before the Dorados won all three games in the regular season against Salpointe, the Lancers won seven consecutive games against CDO — including the victory in the 2022 4A title game at Hillenbrand Stadium.

The programs are a model for how coaches throughout Southern Arizona want to build their programs.

CDO has one of the top pitchers in the state — junior Amelia Streuber (Oregon State commit) — and Salpointe has a potent lineup that has Division I-caliber players in infielder Anyssa Wild (Arizona signee) and catcher Jae Castillo (Utah State).

Streuber is 19-0 with a 0.49 ERA with 165 strikeouts and 15 walks in 128 2/3 innings pitched.

She has not allowed an earned run in her four postseason appearances (spanning 19 innings) this year against Deer Valley, Sahuarita, Arcadia and Eastmark. She has 34 strikeouts and two walks in those games.

In her three victories against Salpointe this season, Streuber has allowed only one earned run in 21 innings with 23 strikeouts and two walks.

Salpointe heads into the matchup confident despite its challenges with Streuber.

“We’re going to win it, we’re going to take CDO and take redemption,” said Castillo, who is batting .386 with 11 doubles and 36 RBIs. “It’s going to be a game. Amelia is a great pitcher. I think we have a great team. We’re going to swing. We’re going to score runs. Defensive is going to be amazing.”

Castillo added the Lancers will have starter Macee Jackson’s “back.”

Jackson is 8-1 with a 0.89 ERA in 69 innings this season in which she replaced Gianna Mares (now at BYU) as Salpointe’s top pitcher. She has 98 strikeouts and 10 walks.

In her matchups with CDO this season, Jackson is 0-2 but she has allowed only one earned run in 12 innings. She has 14 strikeouts and three walks.

Salpointe will look to improve its defense from the last meeting when six errors aided CDO in the Dorados’ 4-0 win at Lancer Field on April 19.

The Dorados are junior-heavy talent similar to Empire with their top four regular hitters at that grade level, led by shortstop Molly Herman (.427, 38 runs, eight doubles, nine stolen bases, 30 RBIs).

The others are second baseman Taya Kelly (.402, seven stolen bases, four doubles, 20 RBIs), center fielder Kayla Hendrix (.379, 12 doubles, four home runs, 25 RBIs, 36 runs) and left fielder Sammy Hudgens (.367, 10 RBIs, 20 runs).

Salpointe’s top regular batters are seniors — Castillo, second baseman/right fielder Alma Garcia (.414, 10 home runs, 46 RBIs), right fielder Jordan Goedel (.374, seven home runs, 11 doubles and 42 RBIs), Wild (.368, seven doubles, four home runs, 29 RBIs) and center fielder Taiya Texiera (.351, 43 runs, 15 stolen bases).

Indicative of Salpointe’s depth — freshman second baseman Isabel Otero played her first game at the varsity level this season in the second semifinal against Mica Mountain and she belted her first home run. Junior outfielder Molli Daley also hit her second home run of the season


Sebastian Lopez is one of Bisbee’s top baseball players who is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks and defensive backs in the state (1,808 yards passing and 1,195 yards rushing and 105 tackles and two interceptions)

The last time Bisbee won a state championship is 2008, about the time some of the current players were born.

The third-seeded Pumas (22-6) will play No. 1 Phoenix Christian (26-2) in the 2A championship Saturday at 7 p.m. at Diablo Stadium in Tempe.

Bisbee beat Bourgade Catholic 9-8 for the championship in 2008. The Pumas, who finished 26-4 that season, scored seven of its runs in the first inning and held on for the win.

Bisbee also has state titles in 1947, 1966, 1993 and 2002.

The 1947 championship was won over Tempe 2-1 at the University of Arizona, where Frank Sancet Field was located before it was turned into a football training facility.

Bisbee junior center fielder Sebastian Lopez is one of the top athletes in the state — dangerous dual-threat quarterback, lockdown defender as a cornerback and now a productive hitter.

He has 93 stolen bases in his career, including 34 this season after posting 45 last year. He is a phenomenal 79 out of 81 stolen-base attempts the last two seasons.

Lopez is also batting .472 with eight doubles, 42 runs and 30 RBIs. He has only pitched 5 1/3 innings but has a 1.31 ERA in five appearances with eight strikeouts and three walks.


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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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