Three-peats in softball at the 4A or 5A level are as rare in Arizona as undefeated seasons in the NFL. Both have happened only once.
The New England Patriots threatened to change that mark this year but came up short. Now Phoenix Arcadia gets its chance. The Titans have been the class of 4A-II the past two years, and if they are again this May, Scottsdale Chaparral (four straight 4A championships from 1995-98) will finally have some company atop Dynasty Mountain.
“(Three-peating) would be the icing on the cake. I might have to retire after that,” coach Jason Foster said.
Working in Arcadia’s favor is that it is one of the state’s oldest and most seasoned teams. Its starting lineup includes five returning position players and only one underclassman. Its top two pitchers, Paula Liebler and Marissa Smith, are back as well. Add in that the Titans already know how to play (and win) with a large target on their back, and they will again be the team to beat.
Arcadia, though, isn’t feeling the pressure.
“The girls take that in stride,” Foster said. “We’re pretty loose.”
The road to a third straight title, though, will not be a smooth or clear one. In addition to the stiff competition the Titans will face (Tempe, Phoenix Greenway, Flagstaff and Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain are among the top challengers), they are also banged up to start the year. Liebler (torn rotator cuff), Smith (knee) and catcher Dani Lockwood (labrum) are all recovering from offseason injuries, but Foster said his team should be 100 percent healthy within a couple weeks.
“We’re starting a little behind the eight ball,” he said. “Hopefully, in a few weeks, we’ll be healthy and ready to go.”
Did you know?
• Eight schools still residing in 5A-I have reached the 5A or 5A-I state semifinals in the last four years. They are Basha, Buena, Corona del Sol, Desert Mountain, Dobson, Horizon, Red Mountain and St. Mary’s.
• New Chandler coach Kim Zadrozny helped Seton Catholic to a couple of softball titles, one in 1999 at the 2A level and one in 2002 at the 3A level.
• New Tempe coach Katie Evans was a standout at the school in the late 1990s.
March 26-29: Desert Mountain Invitational at Horizon Park
April 26-May 10: 5A-I and 5A-II state tournaments (double elimination)
5A-I preseason top 5
1. St. Mary’s: With Dallas Escobedo’s gawdy pitching and hitting numbers leading the way, the Knights are favorites to win it all again.
2. Basha: Just about everyone is back from semifinal finish last season. Might be able to take that last step with junior pitcher Sam Parlich leading the way in the circle and at the plate.
3. Buena: Fell short in another strong bid to win the state title. Still enough to take another shot led by pitcher Meghan McIntosh.
4. Corona del Sol: If the pitching is championship caliber, Aztecs and Ashley Hansen can get back to the title game as they did in 2006.
5. Desert Mountain: Lots of pitching and some pop in their bats. Move to 5A-I should strengthen the conference.
Others to watch: Red Mountain, Highland, Xavier, Mountain View
5A-II preseason top 5
1. Sunnyside: Defending champs posted three shutouts at state last year and gave up one run in title game win. More of same could be on tap.
2. Centennial: The Coyotes are always there at or near the end and this year should be no exception with 11 returning players who played a lot.
3. Sunrise Mountain: A bit of a down year (final six at state) should be rectified this year, although beating out Centennial in Desert West Region is a tall order. Pitcher Jamie LaBovic leads the Mustangs.
4. Horizon: Unlike the baseball team, the Huskies are thankful to escape the Desert Valley Region for the more manageable Pima Region. Final four or better this year has a shot at coming true.
5. Deer Valley: Still the best team in the Northwest Region, but might get a push from Ironwood or Boulder Creek this year.
Others to watch: Pinnacle, Ironwood, Boulder Creek, Kofa
4A-I preseason top 5
1. Canyon del Oro: Star pitcher Kenzie Fowler was hospitalized with blood clots in her arm during the offseason, but she returns to lead the defending state champs.
2. Chaparral: Pitcher Mackenzie Popescue is one of the state’s best, and the Firebirds return almost every key piece from last season’s runner-up finish.
3. Sandra Day O’Connor: Kirstin Linert is small, but packs a big punch on the mound.
4. Paradise Valley: Strong senior class will look to give Chaparral a run in Desert Sky Region.
5. Ironwood Ridge: Morgan Long and Adriana DiMatteo lead the offense.
Other teams: McClintock, Sahuaro, Catalina Foothills, Sunnyslope
4A-II preseason top 5
1. Arcadia: Possesses all the ingredients necessary to capture third straight 4A-II title.
2. Tempe: Young but ridiculously talented Buffaloes return six starters from last year’s state runner-up squad.
3. Bradshaw Mountain: The pitching of Shawn Haese will always keep the team competitive.
4. Greenway: The Demons must find a replacement for pitcher Alisyn McElvain.
5. Flagstaff: Second seed in tournament last year returns pitcher Cristin Martin.
Other teams: Seton Catholic, Mohave, Notre Dame
5 players to watch
Dallas Escobedo, So., St. Mary’s: As a freshman, led Knights to 5A-I championship, striking out 17 in title game. She finished the year with a 0.76 ERA and 501 strikeouts while hitting .401.
Paula Liebler, Sr., Arcadia: As No. 1 pitcher, has carried Titans to two straight 4A-II championships. Went 18-2 with 0.72 ERA and 284 strikeouts in 2007.
Mackenzie Popescue, Jr., Chaparral: Was 20-5 with 0.58 ERA and 252 strikeouts and hit .478 while guiding Firebirds to 4A-I state runner-up finish.
Talor Haro, Sr., Highland: Utility player led East Valley with .699 batting average last year.
Ashley Hansen, Sr., Corona del Sol: Has hit since she was born with no decline in sight. Her regular-season average last year was .623.
Others to watch
Chelsey Striebich, Apache Junction, So., SS; Marissa Smith, Arcadia, Sr., P; Sam Parlich, Basha, Jr., P; Sierra Rodriguez, Basha, So., IF; Lauren Clepper, Cactus Shadows, So., IF; Tessa Braga, Chaparral, Sr. 2B; Caitlin Melnychenko, Chaparral, Jr. 1B; Kennedy Byxbee, Chaparral, Sr., SS; Meredith Whitney, Desert Mountain, Sr., P; Rachel Harbottle, Desert Mountain, Sr., 3B; Whitney Burns, Desert Vista, Jr., IF; Krista Hicks, Dobson, Sr., SS; Amber Price, Gilbert, Sr., IF; Alysa Goldsmith, Gilbert, Sr., IF; Casey Green, Higley, Sr., OF; Katelyn Boyd, Horizon, Sr., IF; Becca Tikey, Horizon, Jr., OF; Lindsey Vollmer, Horizon, Jr., C; Kendra Perez, Marcos de Niza, Sr., P; Sara Sandoval, Mesa, Sr., OF-1B; Bri Robles, Mesa, Sr., P; Stephanie Hagelsieb, Mesquite, Sr., IF; Danielle Muniz, Mountain Pointe, Jr., IF-P; Stephanie Hess, Mountain View, Sr., IF; Annie Lockwood, Paradise Valley, Sr., SS; Mallory DeGroot, Queen Creek, Sr., OF; Jamie Kottcamp, Queen Creek, Jr., IF; Lucy Aubrecht, Red Mountain, Jr., Mel Willadsen, Red Mountain, So., P; Amanda Holleb, Saguaro, Sr., SS; Vanessa Villar, Skyline, Sr, CF; Jade Wilson, Tempe, So., SS; Claire Morton, Tempe, Jr., C; Steph Pesqueira, Tempe, So., P; Stephanie Janes, Xavier, Sr., P; Caitlin Bayley, Xavier, Sr., OF-IF.