If 2011 is not an anomaly, and the era of riding a dominant pitcher to an Arizona high school softball title is over, then Sunrise Mountain is riding a crest of a new wave.
It’s not as though the 16-1 Mustangs lack an ace — actually, they have two. But this year’s squad brings everything to the table: contact hitting, power hitting, speed, defense, unity and leadership.
It adds up to form what may be Sunrise Mountain’s most complete softball team yet — high praise, considering the Mustangs won the state 5A-II title in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
“The seniors that we have this year do a great job every day at practice, so the kids that come in get to see what the expectation is every single year,” coach Nick Rizer said. “The nice thing for us is that these seniors learned from the group before. We’ve definitely had a lot of talent, we’ve been blessed as far as that goes. But it’s been nice because we can fill in some of the gaps just by the kids pushing each other and working hard.”
Pitcher Dani Bonnet, catcher Mickayla Heller and third baseman Karissa Haleman provide the squad’s leadership core. All three seniors will continue their softball careers for Division 1 colleges next year, and the trio is on the cusp of a rare achievement.
By almost every measure, Sunrise Mountain is one of the top two teams in 4A-I this year. Should that hold up through the state finals, the three seniors will have played for a title every year of their high school careers.
Bonnet and Heller have started since their freshman year. Haleman moved up to the varsity in time for the 2008 playoffs and nabbed a starting role in 2009.
“It’s pretty amazing to be part of something like this. We’ve gone to the state championship game three times and won it twice,” Bonnet said. “There’s a lot of people who don’t even get to make it.”
While Bonnet’s arm, Heller’s bat and Haleman’s all-around game were crucial, particularly in the 2009 championship run, the girls had the luxury of playing support roles. Pitcher Jamie LaBovick and shortstop Bridget DelPonte paced the back-to-back title teams.
Bonnet took pressure off LaBovick, Heller improved her ability to call a game and Haleman complemented DelPonte on the left side of the infield. And all three soaked up knowledge from their predecessors.
“It is different now that we don’t have Jamie and Bridget to lead the team. It’s a big step for us,” Haleman said. “We picked up a lot. Personally, I picked up a lot from Bridget. She used to help me with my hitting. She took care of me at shortstop when I was at third base.”
Now the trio is teaching the next crop of talented young Mustangs. Sophomores Kristin Hostetler and Taylor Nowlin spell Bonnet in the circle. Both would be workhorses at many schools, especially Hostetler, who boasts an .33 ERA and a 3-0 record.
Bonnet still starts more than half the time, and has compiled an 11-0 record and 1.11 ERA. Among her victims are top Arizona teams like Mountain Ridge, Deer Valley and Notre Dame Prep. She also shut down tough competition from Alvin, Texas and Pleasant Grove, Calif. at the Faster to First tournament in Orange County.
“California teams and Texas teams are usually top-notch and to beat those teams makes us feel good about ourselves,” Haleman said.
Bonnet also has dramatically improved as a hitter, batting .478 with four home runs and a 29 RBI. Heller is the team’s main power source with six homers. She hits. 456 and has driven in 21 so far. Haleman bats .385 with two homers and 12 RBI.
Four of the younger Mustangs are hitting above .400. Junior Melissa Sechrest leads the team with a .536 average and 31 RBI. Fellow junior Courtney Geith sets the table with a .471 average and 18 steals. A third junior, Annie Jordan, is hitting .417.
Sophomore Michala Erickson adds to the deep lineup with her .468 average. All told, the Mustangs hit significantly better than either of their past two title teams, and are on pace to post higher numbers in runs, homers and RBIs.
“In the past, you could have a softball team be successful based solely on the pitcher, and I don’t believe that we’re that way,” Rizer said. “It’s tough to say that we’re that much different than years past. I would say this year’s lineup, so far, has a tendency to be deeper. We have five to seven in the lineup this year that are really good.”
Despite its overwhelming talent and depth, a third title in four years will not be easy. If Sunrise Mountain is the state’s most complete team, Tucson Canyon del Oro (21-1) is a close second.
Three other teams from the Old Pueblo figure to have a say in 4A-I. Sahuaro (20-1) is the only team to top Canyon del Oro so far. Sabino (16-5) is always in the mix, and Vail Cienega (9-8) is the defending champion.
“It’s different that we have Tucson teams instead of people around us (like Centennial and Deer Valley in 5A-II) because we haven’t seen them play as much,” Heller said.
Though the Bobcats aren’t the same team that beat Sunrise Mountain 7-1 in the 2010 final, they remained in the back of the Mustangs’ mind all offseason. A 6-3 win at Cienega March 31, was a psychological milestone for the group.
“We really wanted to beat them. I think it’s really driving the seniors, knowing that we have to lead the team and do as well as we have in the past,” Bonnet said.
Once their push for a third ring has ended Bonnet, Heller and Haleman will prepare for their college careers. It’s only fitting that the trio is linked here as well.
Scouts from Texas A&M-Corpus Christi came out to watch Bonnet last year, but were also impressed by Halleman and Heller. Both ended up signing with the Islanders, while Bonnet signed with the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., shortly after visiting there.
Rizer said each senior will bring a lot to their college team.
“Mickayla does a great job behind the plate, and hitting for power, for average and running the bases. She’s a real calming factor for us. She’s the girl that’s always picking everybody up,” Rizer said. “Karissa is down to business. She takes her leadership role very seriously and is a great defensive third baseman and clutch hitter. Dani is Dani on the mound. It’s nice to have a kid that can pitch like she does, but still hit .400, drive in 40 runs.”
And more than their play, Rizer said, the seniors set the tone for a tight-knit team that spends most of the season together. The coach said the bond they’ve formed is the most gratifying aspect of this year’s group.
“Team unity is pretty big for us. The girls do so much together outside of softball, it’s almost eerie,” Rizer said. “I get parents sometimes that say, when my kid plays softball for you, we don’t see them for months. It’s just a cool thing. You can tell that it relays onto the field, that these kids are going to be fighting for each other.”