A wave of complete jubilation and relief swept across the softball diamond at Arizona State University for Ironwood Ridge players, coaches and fans alike Monday night.
The symptoms were the result of the Nighthawks’ 5-2 victory in the 5A state final against Centennial, capturing the program’s fifth state title in school history, and first since 2016.
The scene of white-clad players awash in emotion and particles of dirt and clay stemmed from the Nighthawks three-run seventh inning, which propelled the visiting side to victory.
It was an inning that saw junior Kayla Keith rip an RBI double to the wall in right-center field, a run-producing throwing error by Centennial’s catcher and another double off the bat of senior Diana Nisbett.
It was an inning that ended with junior pitcher Shelby Thompson retiring the side in order, causing her to let out a primal scream that echoed across the East Phoenix suburb.
Mostly, it was an evening that second-year coach Dave Martinez will never forget, as his team was able to finish a job that was four years in the making, after losing to Cienega in last year’s title game.
“It's a relief because we put so much into it. And then there's just so much joy for my senior girls. Man, and this group of kids, they just battled and battled and battled,” Martinez said. “And this group of seniors have just been unbelievable, man. They've been to three state championships in four years, and they won, they book-ended it, freshman year and senior year.”
Thompson, who allowed two runs (none of them earned) in seven innings of work, said the sensation of winning a state title was a tad delayed, due to a mixture of adrenaline and disbelief.
“It was just so cool, because I didn’t let it hit me until that final out happen, because I didn’t want anything bad to happen,” Thompson said. “They have good hitters, they’re a good team. So, I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself out there. But we did it.”
The Nighthawks reached Monday’s title game thanks to a mixture of luck and skill, falling to Empire in the 16-team tournament’s second round.
Martinez’s team rebounded in the elimination bracket, beating Mountain View, 7-3, before rolling past Willow Canyon and Horizon twice to reach the title round.
His team’s ability to fight its way off the ropes to capture the title speaks volumes, with Monday’s championship round serving as a fitting coronation for the squad.
“They're tough to handle; it’s not like we have one or two good players, you know, or two or three good players,” Martinez said. “This team is just loaded with talent and just a balance from top to bottom.”
Seniors, like outfielder Jaiden Reid, received a fitting ending to their four-year careers, with a second title ring to add to their collection.
The future Grand Canyon Antelope touched on the importance of winning that second ring in her postgame comments.
“I went into my freshmen year with a state ring too and I didn't want to leave without one and so it was just like the best feeling to end on a good note,” Reid said. “Last year sucked leaving here runners-up and horrible feeling and I'm just glad we poured our hearts out into this game and got this win.”
Martinez said he’s thrilled to earn a championship victory, not just for his players and school, but for Tucson and Southern Arizona in general.
“We play good softball down here, and these guys know that,” Martinez said. “It’s always a battle when we play. So, it just felt really good, and it means so much for me to have these seniors walk out of here with another ring.”