No. 7 Empire upsets top-ranked Valley Christian to claim 3A Softball Championship

(Brittany Bowyer)

Tempe — The No. 7 Empire Ravens are the 2024 3A Softball State Champions after taking down top-ranked Valley Christian 10-6 on Saturday night. In dramatic fashion, the Ravens were able to pull out the victory, upsetting the Trojans to take home the trophy.

For both head coach Shannon Woolridge and the Ravens, this is their third state championship title and first since 2017.

“At our school we’ve always played as the underdog,” assistant coach Kandice Tiggas said. “We’re just gonna play and if we make it here, we want to peak here, and I think the culture has made it so that we’ve been able to peak.”

Woolridge said leading up to the game there really wasn’t much he needed to say to his team. Throughout the season they continuously told them they needed to play calm, cool and collected and they had done just that.

“They’re talented, they’re skilled and they’ve got the experience,” Woolridge “They just gotta go out and do it.”

Things got started for the Ravens in the top of the second when senior Morgan Faunce was able to reach second on an error. After advancing to third, Faunce was able to score on a wild pitch to give the Ravens a 1-0 lead. Later in the inning, senior Callista Drawbaugh had an RBI double to extend the lead to 2-0.

The action continued for them in the top of the fifth, with a lead-off single from junior Angelina Dehler. Dehler was able to steal second before Eva Peace hit the lone home run of the game to extend the lead to 4-0.

After four scoreless innings, the Trojans were able to break through with a two-run homer by Kat Hansen to cut the lead to 4-2.

Knowing they needed a big inning, the Ravens came out and delivered in the top of the sixth.

Freshman Gabrianna Brooks led things off with a single before stealing second base. Drawbaugh followed with a single before a bunt from junior Abby Zsitvay loaded the bases. Dehler slapped down a two-run RBI double, extending the lead to 6-2 with no outs.

After Dehler, Peace hit a single of her own, but unfortunately Zsitvay got tossed out at home on the play. During the next at bat, Dehler was able to score on a wild pitch to extend the lead to 7-2 prior to another RBI double, this one coming from Faunce to make it 8-2 before the inning ended.

Looking to tack on some security runs in the top of the seventh, Drawbaugh hit an RBI double to send Brooks home and extend the lead to 9-2. Next up was Zsitvay, who was able to send Drawbaugh home despite being tossed out at second base, extending the lead to 10-2 by the middle of the seventh.

With just three outs left, Valley Christian could feel the walls closing in and knew they had to act fast. Refusing to go down quietly, the Trojans started off with a single from Hansen, followed with an RBI double from Makay Fraley. A single up the middle allowed Fraley to score, making it 10-4.

Further along in the bottom of the seventh, a line drive to left field sent two more runners across the plate, cutting the lead to 10-6.

The pressure was on for junior pitcher Kendall Freidinger, who needed just one more out to get the win.

“Coach Kandice, she always says, ‘Have a day,'” Freidinger said. “Every single inning I went out she said, ‘Have a day. Have a day.’ So I just kept that in my mind just to go out and have a good outing.”

Doing what she needed to do, she dug her heels into the ground and got a strike out.

“Towards the end we were just trying to keep the energy up,” Freidinger said. “I was obviously getting tired, so I was just trying to like they say find a new gear and just really do it for all of the seniors and all of my teammates.”

This year, the Ravens will graduate three seniors; Faunce, Drawbaugh and Callie Ward. While they may not be big in size, their impact they’re leaving behind will last a lifetime. The coaches had one last message to share for their senior class.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” Tiggas said. “Thank you for leaving a legacy, for doing this sport justice. Thank you for building and continuing our culture at Empire because they set the tone. We are here because of them.”

“We love them,” Woolridge said. “Thank you for choosing Empire. Once a Raven, always a Raven, and now you’re a State Champion forever.”

While Empire will feel the loss of those three seniors, next year’s junior class is ready to step into their senior leadership roles. With more than half of the roster comprised of the class of 2025, the Ravens see themselves hopefully returning to the state championship again next year.

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