With a deep inhale and wide smile, Jordan Beck let out the worst-kept secret in Arizona high school softball, and came as close as anyone wearing black and red to acknowledging the history that’s been made on the east end of Brown Road.
After a fifth consecutive appearance in the biggest game and fourth straight championship, that dreaded D-word question was floated again during Red Mountain’s postgame celebration following a 9-5 victory against Chaparral on Monday night.
That’s three rings for Beck, the junior catcher, and four for the family since her older sister, Taylor, was with the Lions in 2010 when the “D-word” began.
After all, in the past couple years it was always about having a different core group of players from three years ago until now. Or they weren’t interested in said questions because they didn’t want to be selfish or arrogant. All fair points.
But now it’s four in a row, and all but two significant contributors are underclassmen. So are the Lions ready to stop pretending this isn’t a dynasty? Then came the inhale and grin.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I think we’re on that track with what we’ve done that hasn’t been done before.”
Similar to, say, Hamilton football over the years, there are perceptions and realities when it comes to Red Mountain, the kinds of things always taken under microscope when a program — especially in this era of technology coinciding with unprecedented growth and development of high school athletics in Arizona — plays with the biggest schools in the state and has won like this.
Thanks to success from four or five years ago, the program has now sold itself. Lions coach Rich Hamilton doesn’t coach club or go watching club games, and while he has an assistant (Matt Wiley) who’s part of Wild Fire, half of those kids are Red Mountain boundaries and half aren’t.
“It’s not like we’re out running the program. We go with what we have,” Hamilton said. “It comes to a point where kids say they don’t want to come here because they’re good (and won’t play), and they go somewhere else. The juggernaut or program can eat itself.”
“We move kids positions, we practice bunt defense. Most other schools do, it’s not rocket science. We instill in the kids they have to work and 70-percent practicing isn’t going to work.”
There’s no denying the talent pool is deep — Marian Ruf is the No. 2 pitcher behind Bre Macha, who’d be a No. 1 at 80 percent of schools but chose to stay — and Red Mountain had 42 kids at tryouts this winter, more than many schools.
But, as Chaparral coach Stefanie Ewing noted after her team’s second loss to Red Mountain in the state tournament, “You can have top kids, but ask the New York Yankees the past five years if that means wins. They’re great at merging personalities and making kids see the bigger picture beyond their own play or stats.”
The core group of kids who won last year’s championship (and, in a couple cases, were freshmen and sophomores two years ago), don’t just show up and call it a day. Despite the upbringing in the program, some kids still cared more about their stats and college recruiting than making plays or bunting to move runners over.
When Desert Ridge scored 10 runs in the sixth inning of a 13-7 win over Red Mountain on April 3, Hamilton let his team have it the next day, asked if he was wrong in assessing his team’s half-hearted efforts of late and thought about changing practices or incorporating lots of extra running.
It was the last time the Lions lost this season.
“When the tournament came around, it was guns out,” said Macha, and, no, that’s not condoning violence or some endorsement for/against the hot gun control debates.
There’s been no shortage of luck and good fortune in keeping this championship streak surviving.
The past two years, however, have been exceptionally dominant (a 39-9 scoring advantage in five tournament games this season). It’s hard enough to beat them once, let alone have them lose twice in a state tournament.
So how long will this last? Who knows, but they said Monday night the idea and feeling of winning it all never grows stale, and you can bet they’ll be favored again next spring. A state championship is one of the biggest goals, but they insist it’ll never be No. 1.
“We’ve been lucky enough to do it four times in a row,” Hamilton said. “That’s awesome. It’s everyone’s goal and that’s what everyone wants. It’s not about us. This program continues to put out good, quality kids as softball players and great women. That’s the other part of these jobs that don’t get talked about.
“There are girls who can’t stand me now and a few who won’t come out to games anymore for whatever reasons. That’s too bad. But there are a lot who are great for society and great people, and that’s what it’s about.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.