In this dugout is the three-time defending state champions of softball, with a significant portion of the 2012 title team playing prominent roles again. Red Mountain is a No. 6 seed oozing with confidence, has gotten lights-out pitching from junior ace Bre Macha, went through the winner's bracket for a second consecutive year and outscored its opponents 30-4 in this tournament, including a win over its next opponent.
In this other dugout is a No. 14 seed which last played in a title game in 2007 (lost) though was once a dynasty in the mid-to-late 1990s. Chaparral's ace, Dallas McBride, is getting over pneumonia, its coach (Stefanie Ewing) watched practice from a golf cart for three weeks with a broken foot, while a couple parents had to come hit balls to kids during a few April practices because the assistants - who were castaways from other schools (Mike Stoffey at Xavier and Keith Householder at Hamilton) were running the JV team. An assistant coach quit heading into state tournament, the starting first baseman lost a close friend to a drug overdose when the tournament began, and the second-best hitter (Ashtyn Coleman) is a game-time decision after suffering an injured knee in the semifinals, the second-worst injury she suffered this year (a concussion after being in a car accident).
That said, let's not play the tired "David vs. Goliath" cliche here.
Red Mountain is the prohibitive favorite in Monday night's Division I softball state championship game at Arizona State. It's hard not to be as the three-time defending champions who've been nearly lights-out in both pitching and defense, can hit out of every spot in the lineup and beat Chaparral, 5-1, two weeks ago.
The Lions are loaded with experience, most of whom played in Farrington Stadium last year in front of a big crowd and bigger backdrop.
The only larger-sized enrollment school to win four consecutive state titles was ... Chaparral from 1995-1998 as a Class 4A school. The Lions are making a state-record fifth consecutive state championship game appearance in pursuit of being the first largest-sized enrollment schools to win four in a row.
"This is the prize, what we all play for. You play for this chance," Lions coach Rich Hamilton said. "Win or lose this is a great place to be when you get to be one of the final two in the state. Now you do the best you can to win. I told our team we’ve been here, played on the field, played well, everything is going in our direction. All we have to do is win the ballgame and take care of our business to do that."
The Firebirds have done much the same, but by using the "just go play and enjoy this because what else can happen?"
A four-year starting catcher at Oregon State, Ewing was part of the Women's College World Series her freshman year (2006), but the Beavers bowed out quickly. Ewing felt that team was simply happy to be there instead of focused on winning games, and she's tried to relay that message to her kids.
"Once we got there it was about being able to do everything else, and we never believed we could win because we’re happy to be there," she said. "That might have hit (Chaparral's kids) a little bit, to not just be here but have a purpose."
Though unhappy with how her team finished even in an 8-3 victory against Mountain View on Friday night to reach this point, the Firebirds have mostly taken their coach's cue. Chaparral has knocked off the Nos. 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 19 seeds to get here, and it wasn't so rosy at the end of the regular season when an otherwise-soft April schedule was hiccuped with losses to Xavier and Horizon.
Chaparral slipped to No. 14 in the power rankings, and beat No. 19 Buena before putting up 12 runs in a win at No. 3 Basha in the second round.
"Chaparral is going to put it in the play and they’ve got hitters and people who can bunt," Hamilton said. "We have to make plays."
But Red Mountain got home runs from Macha and cleanup hitter Jordan Beck in a 5-1 win over Chaparral, which Ewing felt some of her players were intimidated by the school on the jersey.
"We got caught up in facing 'Red Mountain,'" she said. "We had a lot of momentum and then got a reality check."
Will Monday's second rip at reality end a possible dynasty? Or will the Brown Road boon in Mesa make history?
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.