Tucson high schools wrap up small-school softball titles

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                </div>  In a few days, the spotlight will shine on the softball teams who succeed in winning the big-school state titles.  But for this past week, the city of Tucson […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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In a few days, the spotlight will shine on the softball teams who succeed in winning the big-school state titles.  But for this past week, the city of Tucson has been basking in the championship glow that came with the Division III and IV championships, which were played Monday and Tuesday.

Catalina Foothills High School was the only team from the Old Pueblo still standing among the eight finalists in D-III and Pueblo Magnet was one of just two Tucson teams still alive in the quarterfinals.

And for both teams, the title wins came after years of struggle to get to the top of the mountain.

For Catalina Foothills, this is the school’s first-ever state title in softball.  And Pueblo has waited a quarter of a century to celebrate again; their last title was back in 1990.

All it took for Catalina to finally get there was a young pitcher that has begun growing into her role as the team’s ace that can carry the heavy load for a full season.

Nic Conway, a transplant from Texas that last year dropped into the lap of third-year head coach Mark Stevens, appeared in 25 games last season when the Falcons finished with a 10-18 record.  The left-hander was a freshman then and struggled to an 8-12 record and a 3.64 ERA.

This year Conway pitched 32 games, posted a 23-6 record, and finished with a 1.06 ERA.  And along the way recorded 302 strikeouts.

She pitched all 34 innings in the playoffs as the No. 7-seeded Falcons knocked off No. 2 Poston Butte High School and No. 3 River Valley High to get to the title game match-up with No. 5 Payson High.  Catalina wasted no time in running up a 5-0 lead by end of the second inning and then cruised to an 8-0 victory.

It was the third straight runner-up finish for Payson (23-8-2), which somehow made it through the regular season and the playoffs without two of its best players, pitcher Arissa Paulson, and shortstop Anilese Hayes.  Paulson was not only the mound ace last year, going 26-2 with a 0.41 ERA, but also led at the plate with a .544 batting average.  Hayes was second on that list with a .418 average, eight home runs, and 41 RBIs.

Both seniors were lost for the entire season, sidelined with injuries.

Like Catalina, Pueblo was not a top seed in the Division IV playoffs, but played like one.  The Warriors beat No. 4 Yuma Catholic in the quarterfinals and had to pull a big upset of No. 1 Benson High in the semis to get a shot at the title against No. 2 Camp Verde High.

And like Catalina, Pueblo blanked its opponent, 5-0, to notch a convincing victory for the championship.

And like Catalina, the Warriors rode the arm of its best pitcher to the title.  Nickole Robles posted a 1.34 ERA in 23 appearances this season as she closed out her prep career with a state title.  The senior finished with a 13-2 record.

Robles struck out seven batters and pitched a complete-game shutout against Camp Verde (30-7), while her team backed her up with 10 hits.  She allowed the Cowboys just two hits.

Pueblo scored quickly when sophomore right fielder Ariana Ruiz led off the first inning with a double and later scored on a double steal.  It added another score in the top of the third when Maritza Rubio opened that inning with an infield single and scored later on a ground-out.

But the game got away from Camp Verde in the fourth when Pueblo pushed the lead to 4-0, thanks in large part to a double by senior second baseman Vanessa Molina that scored both runs.  A single by Sierra Gaskill, the senior center fielder, combined with a long double by Alizea Corday added the final run in the fifth.

Robles slammed the door shut by retiring the side in the seventh, delivering a championship to Curtis Ruiz in his first season as the school’s head coach.

Pueblo finished with a 26-6 record – one win more than that 1990 championship team collected.