A quick breakdown of Monday night's Division I softball state championship matchup between No. 14 Chaparral and No. 6 Red Mountain:
In winning the last three state championships, Red Mountain used the self-proclaimed "rabbits and rhinos" in having speed reach base and the "rhinos" driving in runs. This year's group has "rhinos" in Bre Macha, Jordan Beck, Alyssa Fernandez and Ashley Hill, but not nearly as many "rabbits." Still, the Lions lineup is deep, with eight players hitting .379 or higher (according to MaxPreps.com). Red Mountain has also become more effective at hitting up the middle and to the opposite field in this state tournament, even against good pitching (Mountain View Val Kaff and Desert Ridge's Bailey Klitzke, to name a couple). That proficiency could prove big here as well against Chaparral ace Dallas McBride. The Lions' 5-1 win over Chaparral earlier this tournament came courtesy of an 0-2 mistake that Macha hit for a home run, followed by another home run by Beck on what Chaparral coach Stefanie Ewing called a "pretty good pitch." The Lions had trouble with bunts and moving runners in the semifinal against Mountain View, but they are capable of "small ball."
Chaparral, too, has a deep lineup, and even though McBride's two home runs garnered the most attention in the 9-3 win over Kaff and Mountain View to reach the title game, the Firebirds' 7-8-9 hitters were excellent against Mountain View to help the Firebirds reach this game. McBride is a slugger and anchor in the middle of the order, but Lauren LaTerra, Ashtyn Coleman and Kendra Coleman are also dangerous. Red Mountain has pretty good plate discipline, and matching that will be key for Chaparral. If the Firebirds are aided at all by a compact strike zone and can avoid swinging at Macha's outside pitches and uber-effective riseball, the Firebirds will score runs. Ashtyn Coleman's availability is a big question mark in this game for Chaparral after she suffered a knee injury against Mountain View. The Firebirds didn't practice over the weekend and Ewing said Saturday night Coleman was stiff and sore, so it actually could be a game-time decision. The Firebirds have picked one another up all throughout this tournament, so they can survive if needed, but it'll be tough enough at full strength against Macha and the Lions' defense.
Ultimately, how generous or narrow the strike zones are called will have a significant impact on this game (for better or worse).
The junior Macha - who won last year's championship game against Basha - has arguably been the best pitcher in Division I the past month. Red Mountain's defense has improved as well since early April to help her cause after a rough stretch earlier in the regular season. When Macha is throwing strikes, her riseball and changeup aren't gimmicky junk-ball pitches, but rather very effective because she doesn't overuse them and has good control of both. She threw a five-hitter with two walks and eight strikeouts in the first meeting between these teams in this state tournament.
Despite a recent bout with pneumonia, the junior McBride hasn't show many ill-effects of the illness, either hitting or pitching. Being a lefty provides a slightly different look, but the Lions are good at making in-game adjustments. The key to containing Red Mountain's hitting is pitching inside on occasion to keep hitters honest and moving the eye-level of pitches (the latter of which McBride can do with her riseball) - and the Firebirds need to be flawless defensively. Strike zone parameters are a big deal here as well. If McBride gets the high-level strike called or gets Red Mountain to swing at pitches navel-level and higher, she'll be most effective.
Given its experience in these games (and having played at ASU's Farrington Stadium before), quality of play recently and depth, it's difficult to go against Red Mountain. But Chaparral can hit and pitch well enough to win this game, and the Firebirds' adversity throughout the season (especially since the start of the state tournament) has given them a relaxed disposition, which could serve them well. Nerves and jittery play could be prevalent early as the adrenaline runs rampant early, but that should give way after an inning or two. The question will be whether one team or another can avoid letting that work against them until everyone exhales.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.