Conventional wisdom and Siera Phillips don’t agree.
Take, for example, the last two Div. I state championship games. Both times late in the game; both times with runners on base; both times her at-bats ultimately turned out to be the difference.
Both times she was happy to be in a hitter’s “hole.”
Both times it worked out well for her and Red Mountain.
The first was a bases-loaded triple in 2011 that turned a deficit into a lead in the fourth inning (she added another RBI later) as the Lions came back to win a second consecutive state title.
The second was four weeks ago, when, on an 0-1 count, she set the tone early by rocketing the next pitch into left field for an RBI double and an early lead in a 5-2 victory against Basha for an unprecedented third consecutive championship.
Fortune is an obvious factor, but approach counts for a lot. She’s not real interested in taking walks, but her ability to hit pitches out of the zone is why Phillips scoffs that being in a “hole” hurts. The respective 0-2 and 0-1 counts during those championship games certainly didn’t.
“I don’t like pitches down the middle,” Phillips said while playing in the Jim Thorpe Native American Games tournament in Oklahoma City. “It’s different and feel it’s a better approach, it’s certainly less predictable. They’ve all told me you’re a very good bad-ball hitter. For me it’s easier to hit a bad pitch then a perfect pitch. I can’t explain it. Every time I hit one down the middle it never goes well.”
Bucking trends in big moments, however, isn’t solely why Phillips became the 2012 Tribune Player of the Year. That can be attributed to her hitting (.455 with 45 runs and 47 RBI), pitching (13-0, 1.40 ERA) and defense (a key backup play in right field late in the championship to help preserve a run), not to mention her willingness to play elsewhere for the sake of sharing innings with sophomore Bre Macha, and, in turn, making Red Mountain an unmatched two-horse staff.
“At times it’s a little frustrating because I love pitching,” she said, ”but I like being in the game and proud of her being so young. We’re pretty good friends and teammates. It kept me together by playing two positions. That’s crucial.”
She’ll pitch and play outfield at Dixie State in Utah this fall (following former Lion outfielder Courtney Sherwin), but the state championship wasn’t her final hardware. Playing with Mountain View catcher Erin Manuel, her team won the age 18 level of the Jim Thorpe tournament, in which kids ages 18 and under of Native American descent from around the country are invited to play in one of a few different age divisions for the week-long festivities.
She started softball at age 8 as the first sport her mother signed up for, and there haven’t been others worthy of her attention. She guesstimates playing and practicing a combined 6-7 times per week, has a couple pitching coaches (including her father) to work on separate facets of the game — she rattled off her six-pitch arsenal like it was her grocery list.
Phillips and Payton Kornfeind played together at Shepard Junior High as ninth graders, and though they won the city championship, competing against the best in the state never garnered Phillips’ attention until after she began at Red Mountain.
“We didn’t really pay attention to high school softball at the time,” she said. “We didn’t realize at the time we could win a state championship as a sophomore or as a junior. It didn’t hit me, it was weird to me at the time that it was so important. But it is and we’ve passed that along.”
Memorable Moments from the 2012 Season
•Dynasty?: Much as Red Mountain might try — noting it’s a significantly different group of players each year — it’s difficult to argue against the “D” word after Red Mountain won a third consecutive big-school state championship. The Lions had a core group (Haley Culley, Bre Macha, Siera Phillips, Jordan Beck) which returned after being a huge portion of the 2011 championship team, and the Phillips/Macha combination on the pitcher’s mound set the Lions apart from the rest even while navigating through split innings and Macha’s back injury that cost her three weeks but returned and came up big in the postseason. This team’s original claim to fame: These Lions didn’t follow “The Red Mountain Way” as the Lions went through the winner’s bracket for the first time to win their fourth championship since the original divisional split in 2006.
• Comeback kids: Struggles at the season’s start ultimately gave way to satisfaction for a few East Valley schools (Perry, Queen Creek, Mesa, Horizon, Horizon Honors), and No. 1 on the list might have been Valley Christian. Once a Class 2A power, but which didn’t have enough players at tryouts (eight) to field a team. New coach Jenni LaBlanc and a few experienced kids, led by Samantha Frank and sisters Janelle and Larae Hunt, recruited girls at the school, some of whom had never played softball before. With one-third of the roster brand new to the game, the Trojans went 14-11 and reached the Div. IV quarterfinals.
• Ch-ch-ch-changes: Similar to the other sports, the first year of computer scheduling and new state tournament formats was a mixed bag. Most coaches loathed the computer-based geographical schedule, and schools rarely played more than five or six schools within its respective section. Schools are hoping a change to playing each team once in its section (instead of twice) will help even out competitive schedules and allow for a true section champion. Conversely, the expansion of 24 teams with first-round byes in the Division I and II state tournaments, plus the move to having two rounds of single elimination games followed by double elimination for the final eight teams were both viewed as positives.
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