SIGNAL PEAK — When Shelby Davis took over the reins of the Central Arizona College softball program, her first goal was to get back to nationals.
But it wasn't until a fall scrimmage against the University of Arizona that she thought they would achieve her goal in her second year as coach.
"The second we played them I was like, 'We have a chance,'" Davis said. "We had six hits; they had eight. They had a few long balls and their pitcher shut us down. But we put ourselves in a good position to score runs, where last year we didn't know what we were doing."
Central Arizona College's Hannah Norris, a graduate of Casa Grande Union High School, throws to first base during practice on Saturday in preparation for the NJCAA Tournament, which begins on Wednesday in St. George, Utah. CAC is making its first trip to the national tournament since 2005.
Central would lose both games 6-0. Davis said those were the only games where the Wildcats didn't run-rule a team. Davis added that after seeing how her players responded to playing against a storied program like UA, she turned to one of her assistants and said, "We have a chance."
"We had a long season ahead and a lot of work to do, but as soon as those girls went up against UA and were not scared to be there, we knew," Davis said. "They thought they could beat UA. They were putting the ball in play; they were making plays.
"We have a lot of kids who grew up idolizing that program, and then when they got on the field with them, they were like, 'We can hang.' The mentality has changed, and I think that's the fastest thing that has changed."
That mentality by the Vaqueras led them to a 50-9 overall record and a third-place finish in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference with a 41-6 mark.
Central Arizona College's Jessenia Miranda throws to first base during practice on Saturday in preparation for the NJCAA Tournament, which begins on Wednesday in St. George, Utah. CAC is making its first trip to the national tournament since 2005.
Led by Kyrstan Garcia, who topped the conference in wins with 28, and Ashleigh Withers, who swiped 34 bases to lead the conference, Central rolled through the Region 1 playoffs with a 5-2 win over Pima College and a pair of wins over Eastern Arizona including a 9-8 victory to send the Vaqueras to their first NJCAA Tournament since 2005.
The Vaqueras are the No. 5 seed in the 16-team national tournament in St. George, Utah. They will play No. 12 seed Wallace State Community College (39-16) from Hanceville, Alabama, at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
"We have worked really hard. We had a few letups, but for the most part we were pretty consistent throughout the year," Davis said. "It's faster than what I expected, but we brought in a real freshman-heavy group. We only have four returners from last year. So I knew if we got the group in here we are going to make them better."
Central returned former Vista Grande player Annalisa Cordova and Phoenix North Canyon product Brianna Moeller while adding newcomers including Casa Grande Union product Hannah Norris and Jessenia Miranda.
"We made progress from the year before, and then this year we made even more progress. Every game, our goal is to make progress," Davis said. "We brought a lot of changes to the program, and the girls were open to it. They kind of gave their trust in us that we were going to get to nationals if they show up every day and work hard."
Central Arizona College's Brianna Moeller takes batting practice on Saturday in preparation for the NJCAA Tournament, which begins on Wednesday in St. George, Utah. CAC is making its first trip to the national tournament since 2005.
Central will be looking for its 13th national championship and its first since 2005 when Davis was the catcher. The Vaqueras are looking to rebuild a program that from 1984-2005 won 12 national championships including a stretch from 1984-1992 where they won seven of nine titles including five straight from 1988-1992.
"I think (getting to nationals) was the biggest thing to overcome. The program kind of let itself fall away from that and slip away from what it traditionally is, but getting back there is huge for the program and for the community," Davis said. "We have set the tone for incoming kids that if we don't go to nationals, if we don't win regionals, then we fall short of our goal. The first step is to get there. Obviously we want to win, but the big thing is setting that bar there for the future kids."