When the Gilbert Softball Little League 9-11 All-Stars were assembled in the beginning of June, team manager Matthew Hess knew it was a group capable of reaching great heights.
They showed in practices leading up to the Arizona State Little League softball tournament they had the pitching and overall defensive ability to limit an opponent’s runs. But what he didn’t expect was the onslaught of runs his team would produce throughout the state tournament in Sierra Vista from July 15-22.
Gilbert outscored its opponents 37-9 and went undefeated in tournament play to win the state championship.
“As a coach, it was something that we began working toward in the beginning of the summer,” Hess said. “As a dad, I get kind of emotional about it. It’s amazing to see the girls put in the work and see everything come to fruition.”
Gilbert beat Flagstaff, 4-2, to win the state championship. It was the second time Gilbert beat the Flagstaff All-Stars in the tournament.
On both occasions, the games remained close.
“I feel like Flagstaff was a deeper team than us both physically and with their speed,” Hess said. “To beat a team that was stronger than us in most facets of the game, our heart and determination took over and was the difference in that.”
Hess’ daughter, Collin, played a vital role in the team’s run to the state championship. She had the second-most runs on the team with 5, trailing only GiGi Kilmer with 6. Jyllian “Pickle” Skoda, the team’s outfielder, led the team with 3 extra base hits and 5 RBI, while Kilmer, Karsyn Norton and Ana Hernandez all had 3.
Cambria Chacon struck out 23 batters while only giving up 7 earned runs in 16 innings pitched during the tournament. She was responsible for three of the team’s victories, while the other was won by Abby Harrell.
“These girls are amazing,” Hess said. “Their work ethic was great and they got along which really showed. I think it was also the culture from the coaching staff, we really wanted to be a family.
“It really created something magical.”
The team spent the duration of the seven-day tournament at a hotel in Sierra Vista, about 178 miles south of their homes in Gilbert. They used the time away from home to bond, which often resulted in playing hide and seek in the hotel or swimming at a local pool.
Hess said they became more than just teammates during the tournament, and it showed on a daily basis. Before each game, the girls would often be seen in videos dancing to songs playing over the field’s loudspeaker.
“We hung out and danced, it was a lot of fun,” Collin said. “I got to know the girls’ personalities a lot more. I was really happy to be with them and win the championship.”
Collin said she was happy to be able to rush to the middle of the field with her team when they got the final out. But what transpired next might end up being her favorite memory from the entire tournament.
Each girl from Gilbert’s team was being recognized after the championship game. When their name was called, they were given an award and then returned to their coaches down the first-base line.
After Collin received her award and made her way back to her coaches, she stopped and hugged her dad.
“I really didn’t have a chance to look at (the championship) from a dad’s perspective until then,” Hess said. “She’s usually the stoic one and I’m the one that gets emotional. But she broke down and it really hit home at that point.”
Collin, who is called “Noodles” by her teammates because of her love of pasta, found joy in having her dad coach the team.
“I liked being together and sharing the sport that we both love,” she said.
Because of age restrictions, the 9-11 Gilbert All-Stars aren’t eligible to move on to regionals in California. Both softball and baseball players must be in the 10-12 age group in order to advance.
Hess and his players knew that was a factor heading into the state tournament, but they all agreed to use the summer as a stepping stone toward next year. Should they advance to California and then to Oregon for the Softball Little League World Series, it would help achieve a dream that Hess has had since his own Little League days in Long Beach, California.
As a kid, Hess went to Williams Port to support his cousin, who was part of the Long Beach team that won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. The thought of experiencing that as a coach with his daughter entered his mind immediately following the championship game.
“It’s all I could think about,” Hess said. “I got a text from my brother right after we won and it said, “the road to the World Series starts tomorrow.” That’s kind of the idea. We know a lot can change until then but that’s the mindset at this point.”
Until then, however, he will continue to relish in the experience he shared with his daughter and her 12 new friends.
“It’s life changing, really. My favorite thing in the world was seeing these girls work, put in effort, get better every day and love doing it,” Hess said. “They encouraged each other and were there for each other. If someone was down they picked them up.
“It was truly amazing.”