Red Mountain has one, possibly two to spare. Gilbert and Saguaro both have it. Basha, Corona del Sol and Saguaro are working on it.
For nearly everyone else, it’s only a wish often unanswered.
The Diamondbacks won the World Series with aces Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, and Lennon had McCartney, but most East Valley softball teams’ top pitchers have stood solo on the mound these days.
Not only are the dominant, flame-throwing aces a part of the past — St. Mary’s Dallas Escobedo, Red Mountain’s Mel Willadsen, Rae Ball at Chaparral, Morgan Montemayor from Peoria Centennial and many more — but most teams are without a consistent (or even serviceable) No. 2 to take the pressure off during this spring season of crowded schedules.
Add in the mound being moved back from 40 to 43 feet last year, and more and more balls are being put in play. That means more pitches per inning and per game. With many schools playing in big tournaments and then three or four power point games per week.
“I think having a solid No. 2 is crucial to success,” Perry coach Kevin Chapin said. “Coaches are having to lean very hard on their No. 1. With teams playing around 30 games, the No. 1 is taking more of a beating now. Some of them may even be less effective due to wear and tear of having to throw so much. Even schools fortunate enough to have some of the better pitchers are laboring.”
The Pumas have relied on Jillian Leslie. Desert Mountain has Andy Wellins. Notre Dame has Tess McPherson. Mountain View has Val Kaff. Queen Creek has Amanda Baldwin. Mesa has Sierra Whitmer. Desert Vista has Danielle Block. The list goes on.
But what lies beneath? For most teams, not much.
Several teams’ coaches have said their top pitchers have struggled both physically or mentally this season. Without viable alternatives behind them, the team’s top pitcher has been forced to throw more innings in a shorter period of time (most teams still play approximately 30 games but the regular season ended Wednesday under the current scheduling model, one week earlier than the previous two years).
Mountain Pointe relied mostly on Santa Clara-bound Ciara Gonzales (90-plus innings), but has also worked in freshman Kristen McCann (about 60 innings) and junior Chandler Hillman (about 40 innings).
The Thunder, on the other hand, have rode Block, who through 169 2/3 innings of the team’s first 188 innings, throughout their breakout season.
“She has been strong all season,” Thunder coach Chris Crowl said. “If we are going to get beat, we want them to beat our best.”
Corona del Sol has been ravaged by pitching injuries the past two seasons, and junior ace McKenna Isenberg can’t throw a No. 1 pitcher’s usual amount of innings because of arm and shoulder troubles. That’s meant far more work for Makenzie Bates and occasionally Leah Kroeger, but Isenberg’s diminished presence has had an effect on the team’s play behind her.
McPherson has fought through injuries to keep Notre Dame in contention in Div. II. Cactus Shadows has also had problems with injuries this season, which has left freshman Katie Paoli alone on the hill with a troubled arm and back, while her emergency fill-in backups aren’t normally pitchers.
“Does it place more of a premium on having a good second pitcher? I think a great pitcher can go three games a week, but there aren’t many of those this year,” Tempe coach Katie Evans said.
So besides having top hitting lineups, it’s not surprising that most coaches consider Red Mountain (Bre Macha and Siera Phillips), Gilbert (Lynsey Duncan and Taylor McCord) and Basha (Kailey Regester and Lynea Klemmedson) the three best teams in Division I.
The extra 3 feet in distance between the mound and home plate — a decision largely welcomed when the National Federation of State High School Associations enacted and Arizona changed two years ago — has meant more pitching-to-contact.
“I think the more wear-and-tear comes from the fact that they are not dominant, so more pitches, more innings, longer games,” said Pinnacle coach Ben Frank, who doesn’t believe there’s much of a difference this year than in past seasons when it comes to pitcher’s health and workload.
Added Evans: “The majority of high school pitchers aren’t going on to throw in college and are relatively under-developed compared to college- and Olympic-level athletes. The small change in distance decreases their effectiveness in high school, especially at the lower levels.”
Perhaps the biggest advantage for the select few who are confident in starting a second pitcher is yet to come.
Nearly everyone will continue to throw their ace in every game of the state tournament, but with the double-elimination format not taking hold until Div. I and Div. II are each down to its final eight teams (Div. III and IV are entirely single elimination tournaments), there’s no margin for error in those early rounds, and a trip into the loser’s bracket, thereafter, means more games.
It means the ace gets saddled with more innings, more wear and tear, and a bigger burden in the body and on the scoreboard.
“It takes its toll mentally and physically on them,” Chapin said. “Teams who have two strong and reliable pitchers should hit the playoffs with a more rested pitching staff. That only helps.”
Jason P. Skoda contributed to this story.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.