Sunrise Mountain’s Taylor Nowlin was reliving her last start in ASU’s Farrington Stadium — for two batters, anyway.
A year after a blister on her pitching hand marred a Division II state 9-7 loss to Canyon Del Oro, Nowlin began the 2013 title game against the Dorados’ rival, Ironwood Ridge, allowing a walk, a stolen base and an infield single. Fellow SM senior Morgan Leonard called time.
“She had nerves and I called time and went up to her. I said ‘Me and you, one last time.’ Then she did what she does,” Leonard said. “It means so much to us. Ever since that loss, we’ve put our hearts and dedication out there.”
Nowlin struck out the next three batters to end the threat and, as it turned out, end the drama of Monday’s title game. The pitcher that’s baffled Division II for two years returned, sending down 16 Nighthawks in a row and only allowing one more base runner.
Her fourth straight playoff shutout, plus a steady stream of hits to left field turned this championship competition into a coronation. No. 1 seed Sunrise Mountain (36-1) scored in the first inning and never looked back, lifting the trophy after a 7-0 win.
“The first two got on and I was like, ‘Oh no, flashback from last year,’ but I kept looking back at my middle infielders and Morgan was calming me down,” Nowlin said. “We played the best game we have in a while.”
No. 4 Ironwood Ridge sports a young lineup, starting one senior, four juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen. And the kids could not solve Nowlin’s rise ball or the movement on her other pitches, resulting in 12 strikeouts.
“It’s the first left-handed pitcher we’ve seen all year,” Ironwood Ridge coach Randy Anway said. “But the reality of it is, we weren’t disciplined at the plate. We were definitely chasing stuff out of the zone.”
While this is Sunrise Mountain’s fourth title, and seventh state final in a decade, it was five seniors’ last chance for a ring. Nowlin, Kirsten Hostetler and Michala Erickson were on the 2010 runners up and eight players returned from last
It was a fitting finale for a group that has been inseparable on and off the diamond.
“It’s been a great year,” Nowlin said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better team or coaches, or a better year.”
Their ace’s first-inning escape fueled the offense. Senior Molly Stern poked a single to shallow center and stole second base. After two strikeouts, Leonard drove the ball over two outfielders’ heads for an RBI double.
It was a preview of the rest of the game for Sunrise Mountain, whose pitching, hitting and base running was every bit as good as advertised for a top 20 team in Maxpreps’ national rankings.
Sophomore Whitney Chamberlain’s one-out hit began the second inning charge. Junior Brooke Taylor reached on a fielder’s choice and stole second.
Stern collected another hit, a chopper over junior pitcher Emily Robinson’s head, and swiped second again. Junior Danae King’s infield single plated Taylor and Stern scooted home under the tag for a 3-0 lead.
Erickson nearly blew it wide open, but sophomore Merilee Miller hauled in her drive at the center field drive.
“It was nice. We didn’t try to do too much at he plate,” Sunrise Mountain coach Jody Pruitt said. “Their center fielder made two tremendous plays that could have really blown the game open. Their pitcher did a nice job but we were patient.”
The Mustangs had a chance for more in the third inning, loading the bases with one out. But Robinson picked up a popup and a grounder to end the inning.
King bashed a fourth-inning double to the wall in left center field and Erickson followed with another single to left. Leonard lined a triple down the left field line to send both runners home.
Again, the Mustangs nearly had more than a 5-0 lead. Nowlin lofted a sacrifice fly, but the umpires wiped out Leonard’s run, ruling she started off third base before the ball was caught.
Sunrise Mountain was back at the plate in a few minutes following Nowlin’s fourth straight 1-2-3 inning. Senior Kirsten Hostetler led off with a single, junior Tatume Birt bunted to short for a hit and Chamberlain walked.
“We just stayed back and drove our hands through it, and I think that’s what made us successful,” Leonard said.
After an out at the plate, Stern reached first base and a run came home on a fielding error. King came a few feet from ending the game with a grand slam, only to see Miller bring in another at the wall.
Sophomore Valerie Vidal tagged up and came home for the final run. Stern scooted home just behind her, but was called out for not tagging up properly.
Freshman Reina Bondi singled back up the middle to end Nowlin’s string, joining Miller as the only Nighthawks with a hit. But Ironwood Ridge (28-11) went out quickly and quietly after that.
Anway would have liked a better ending, but said he’s thrilled with what this team accomplished. It was his final game with the program after 11 years as the north Tucson school’s only head coach.
After their own bitter disappointment against Canyon del Oro a game short of the state title last year, this squad exceeded expectations. Monday was the Nighthawks’ third title game loss, but Anway’s successor will take over one of the state’s better programs.
“The next coach will have a lot to work with. It’s a great group of young people and I’m extremely proud of them,” Anway said. “I think they have overachieved. At times when they could have taken the easy road they didn’t. They dug in and battled.”
Perhaps after spending more time with family, Anway will return to coaching as Pruitt did. The former University of Arizona catcher was Sunrise Mountain’s original coach, leading the Mustangs to the 2004 5A title game.
Before the 2006 season, Pruitt stepped down to give birth. Her brother, Scott Miller, took over the program for that one year and led the Mustangs to their first championship.
Nick Rizer became the full-time head coach and helped consecutive title teams in 2008-09 before retiring after the 2011 season. Pruitt came back and has led this group to a 69-3 record the second time around.
“I had two great people take ove for me,” Pruitt said. “It’s nice to have one of my own. Having Tanner Reischel as assistant coach, I’m absolutely blessed to have her. It takes 15 of us.”