It’s a humorous and self-depreciating nickname: “The Red Mountain Way.”
It’s how the school’s softball team finds itself in trouble during the past six years’ worth of state tournaments. Until this year’s tournament it’s been by losing an early game in the double-elimination tournament and having to win through the elimination portion of the bracket. Sometimes it involves large, late-inning comebacks in those elimination games to survive and advance.
But it’s also about the “how” and “why” Red Mountain continually finds ways to beat its own rap.
The most recent in a long lineage of ulcers happened Wednesday night in the Division I semifinals against Glendale Mountain Ridge. Catcher and cleanup hitter Jordan Beck was one of the heroes of the Lions’ latest back-from-the-brink victory against Mountain Ridge that has Red Mountain playing for a third consecutive state championship on Monday night at Arizona State.
The Lions will face the winner of Friday night’s loser’s bracket final between Mountain Ridge and Basha at 7:30 p.m. at Rose Mofford Softball Complex in Phoenix.
This is the first year Red Mountain has gone through the winner’s bracket since the double-elimination format began in 2006 (oddly enough Lions coach Rich Hamilton was part of the push to make that tournament format happen).
Beck called it a “Red Mountain swag,” or swagger; “an expectation” that players will come through when called upon. It’s part of the standard set in a program which annually deals with sky-high expectations.
So when the Lions — who were negated offensively and trailed 3-1 with two outs and nobody on base in the seventh inning — loaded the bases for Beck with the game on the line, it wasn’t a big deal to her.
She ripped a single to left field and a quick bobble by Mountain Ridge allowed two runs to score to tie the game and force extra innings.
“You have to clear your mind,” Beck said. “You can’t panic. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
Easier said than done given they’re teenage girls in high-pressure situations. But the same thing happened in the eighth when leadoff hitter Haley Culley — who started the seventh inning rally with a bunt single — came to bat with the bases loaded and completed another crazy comeback with a walk-off hit.
“Do your job,” said Culley, who’ll play in the fourth state championship game of her high school career after the senior shortstop drove in the winning run Wednesday with a line shot off the center field fence.
“We all stay positive in our heads. We all think we can make it happen.”
The history of this runs deep. Since the double-elimination format began in 2006, the Lions have won state championships in ‘06, 2010 and 2011.
Last year, the Lions trailed Basha, 3-0, scored four runs in the fourth inning and another in the fifth, then allowed Basha to pull back within 5-4 in the seventh before ending the rally. Before that game, the Lions were hammered by Mountain View earlier in the tournament to fall into the loser’s bracket, then beat Mountain View twice in two elimination semifinal games to advance (11-8 when Red Mountain scored five runs in the fifth inning; then 7-6 by scoring two runs in seventh inning).
In 2010, the Lions won elimination games 4-3 (vs. Basha) and 3-2 (vs. Highland).
In 2006, the Lions had to beat Sierra Vista Buena twice in the semifinals, then won a 5-4 thriller against Corona del Sol.
The only time Red Mountain hasn’t trailed in a championship game during this run was 2010, when Courtney Sherwin broke a scoreless deadlock against St. Mary’s with a home run off Dallas Escobedo (now at Arizona State) in the 10th inning to win the title.
To wit, there have been moments of defeat. The Lions forced extra innings against Basha in 2009, but the Bears scored three runs in the ninth inning to repeat as champions. The Lions lost the second game in a doubleheader against St. Mary’s, 3-2, and were eliminated in the 2007 semifinals.
Acknowledging bounces and oppositional mistakes both this year and past situations have often occurred at crucial times — Mountain Ridge dropped a throw to first base on a bunt attempt after a flawless defensive performance for 6 2/3 innings, and bobbled Beck’s hit which allowed Payton Kornfeind to score the tying run — the Lions also credited their own preparation.
They regularly run “DOBR” (Defense, Offense, Bases, Running) drills in practice. It’s essentially a simulation of in-game scenarios similar to what the Lions have dealt with the past five years. Every player is involved in a wide array of hypotheticals (hit-and-run, bunt, defensive strategy. Beck said push-ups and sit-ups are often the consequence of failed execution.
“A lot of us play with and against each other in club ball,” she said. “We’ll get after it and gang up on each other.”
It’s not that other programs aren’t doing the same things in practice — they often do — but it leaves few surprises when real games unfold. The Lions believe it’s ingrained in their kids to remain calm by knowing exactly what to do in any given situation.
Of course, five years’ worth of scenarios is pretty difficult to duplicate, replicate, or create. Explanations behind all these favorable outcomes are near-impossible.
“Is there going to be a time when we lose? When it doesn’t happen? Absolutely,” Hamilton said. “You know it’s going to happen, maybe even (Monday). You believe in each other and that’s all you can ask.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.