Ed Petruska - Pinal Central
SIGNAL PEAK — The intensity level is sure to be magnified when Central Arizona College takes the field in its Division I Region 1 softball tournament opener on Friday in Yuma.
After slogging through a 57-game regular season that had its trials and tribulations, two days will determine if the Vaqueras have honed all their skills to the sharpest edge.
"We have to stay focused and keep the game simple," CAC coach Shelby Davis said. "We have to make the routine plays, move runners along and run the bases" with intelligence.
Third-seeded Central (42-15) faces No. 2 Yavapai (46-12) in Friday's first game, followed by top-seeded and region host Arizona Western (49-9) against Pima (29-26). The tournament continues with two more games on Friday and possibly three on Saturday.
As always, the format of the tournament won't allow for much of a lapse by the team that emerges with the title and an automatic berth in the 16-team NJCAA Tournament (May 22-25 in St. George, Utah), which also is double elimination.
"All of the teams are pretty consistent," Davis said. "It's going to come down to whose pitchers show up. That's where Western has been tough."
AWC's Koryne Coddington (27-5, 2.03 ERA) and Sarah Velasquez (18-2, 1.84) both were named to the all-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference first team. The Matadors have a team ERA of 2.23.
Central qualified for nationals as the region tournament's No. 2 seed in 2017, ending a 12-year drought on junior college softball's biggest stage. The Vaqueras went 2-2, getting ousted after a 2-0 start.
The Vaqueras have won a record 12 NJCAA Division I titles, the last in 2005. Davis was the primary catcher on that team which came through the elimination bracket to win three games on the final day. Those nationals ended on undoubtedly the most dramatic hit in program history – a walk-off home run by Antoinette Estrella in the eighth inning against Indian River, Florida.
Former Vista Grande standout Danielle Wheeler provided a similar amazing jolt in 2017, when she ended the region tournament in Prescott with a walk-off homer against Eastern Arizona.
While those kind of moments probably won't be repeated in Yuma, each of the four teams are capable of coming through in the clutch.
CAC went 1-3 versus Western and 3-1 against Yavapai and Pima. Having notched at least one win against each of the playoff teams seemingly gives the Vaqueras a reasonable chance.
"I think our girls are confident and in a good place mentally," Davis said. "We're facing opponents who we know we can compete against."
Central had two players named to the all-ACCAC first team, along with one second-team selection and two third-team picks.
The first-teamers are ACCAC Division I player of the year Makiya Thomas and pitcher Baylee Eaton. Thomas leads the conference in batting average (.503) and stolen bases (45) and has 36 RBIs. Eaton is 21-6 with a 3.39 ERA.
Aliya Ewell (.456, team-leading 56 RBIs) was voted to the second team. Nicol Ley (.425, 39 RBIs) and Sonia Solis (.414, 41 RBIs) made the third team.
In addition to Coddington and Velasquez, Western had three other players on the all-ACCAC first team — Cassandra Valle (.439, 65 RBIs), Sabrina Garcia (.458) and Aylin Campa (.404).
Shaylee Alani and Kylie Brown were Yavapai's first-team selections. Alani has an ACCAC-best 79 RBIs, is tied for first with Brown in home runs with 18 and is batting .469 — second behind Thomas. Brown is batting .459 with 69 RBIs.
Trinity Valentine (16-7, 3.89) is CAC's No. 2 pitcher. Davis said Eaton and Valentine "have to produce by making quality pitches on every pitch they throw."
Yavapai's primary pitchers are Shaye Pinner (23-5, 3.58), Kendra Duran (12-6, 4.61) and Zoe Zoellner (11-1, 4.83).
Bianca Castillo (11-11, 4.91), Letitia Casper (10-5, 5.49) and Abril Nerey (8-9, 5.98) are Pima's top pitchers.