Three years ago, the Catalina Foothills softball team won five games.
Today, they are state champions: The Falcons beat Payson 8-0 to win the Division III state title.
Nic Conway led the way as the sophomore pitcher was dominant. Conway gave up just four hits, while striking out 14. Her final strikeout was her 300th of the season and the final out of the game.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without Nic’s extraordinary pitching and our senior catcher Lilli Wright calling a great game every single time,” said Head Coach Mark Stevens. “They work together very well and they always have a plan for the game.”
On the swing and the miss, catcher Lilli Wright had the ball squirt out of her glove. She calmly picked it up, fired it to first for the championship-clinching out and then just as calmly turned to retrieve her mask while her teammates celebrated furiously behind her.
Eventually her teammates found her, with one leaping into her arms.
The championship marks a remarkable turnaround for the Falcon program, which won just five games three years ago. The Falcons used to have one of the better programs in the city in the early 2000s, but a lack of coaching continuity saw the team struggle for relevance. Before Stevens took over in 2014, the team had five coaches in the preceding six years and hadn’t had a winning season since 2008.
That changed this year. The Falcons went 27-10 and 13-5 in regular season games, with all five losses coming by two runs or less.
Conway was 23-6 on the season, with an ERA of 1.06 and averaged nearly 10 strikeouts per game.
“Of course you can’t have the season that we had without good pitching and Nic Conway was phenomenal this season,” Stevens said. “She was dominant in every game she pitched and probably should have won five more games this year if we had scored a few more runs.”
While the Falcons needed just a single run to beat Payson, their offense got them more.
The Falcons got on the board in the first inning as Marisa Garcia singled in Micayla Brooke to give Foothills a 1-0 lead. Brooke led off the inning with a walk, then was sacrificed to second setting up the first run.
The Falcons broke the game open in the second, scoring four more runs. Megan Kelch led off the inning with a triple and then Wright was walked. Brooke laced a two-out single up the middle to score Kelch. An error on the throw to get Brooke was misplayed, allowing another run to score.
Natalie Stevens sent a shot to deep center and her double scored Brooke. Conway helped her own cause with an RBI single that scored Stevens.
Myranda Escobar was hit-by-pitch to start the inning. Brooke attempted a sacrifice bunt but reached when it was misplayed. Conway took advantage of the miscue with an RBI single to score Escobar. Garcia followed with another hit to score Brooke and the Falcons went up 7-0.
They added a final run in the seventh.
Conway moved to Arizona from Texas and has helped Stevens change the culture. Her pitching was a key, but so was getting the players to buy in. Coming into year three, the players knew there was continuity with the staff and put in the work.
“I think the key to the turnaround is not only good pitching but the hard work the players put in every day in practice and really believing they can beat anyone they play,” Stevens said. “This team never gives up no matter the circumstance and battles to the end in every game. This is something they have bought in to and has helped our program become successful. I also have the most incredible and hard working coaching staff who know the finer points of the game very well and really teach the girls the game of softball.”
The Falcons finished third in their section, but were the No. 7 seed in the playoffs and coincidently faced section champion Douglas in their first game. They avenged a March loss to the Bulldogs with an 8-1 win, then edged Poston Butte 2-1 before earning their championship game bid with a 12-0 win over River Valley.
The winning may not be done for the Falcons. They lose some key players but return 10 players next season, including Conway and Stevens, who were among their top run producers this season.