Perry High softball team makes dramatic turnaround, aims at state title

#1 Autumn Kunze, left, #2 Amiya Hernandez, middle, and #20 Janai Mathis, right, celebrate after Amiya’s homerun to try and spark a comeback against the Xavier College Prep Gators as their explosive offense was on full display. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

#1 Autumn Kunze tries to work her way back into the game after quickly falling behind 3-0 at Xavier College Prep high school in Phoenix, Arizona on Tuesday March 29th, 2022. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

Head Coach Robert Hehe is the driving force behind the Pumas’ quick turnaround, coaching, and work ethic is keeping this club at the top spot. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – The secret is out: The Perry Pumas are evolving into one of the state’s top high school athletic programs.

The evidence is in Perry’s recent record. The Gilbert school’s varsity girls soccer team reached the state championship game. It’s pom and cheer squad brought home a state championship. Perry’s varsity boys baseball team is off to a hot start, and both of the school’s varsity basketball squads reached the 6A championship game with the boys delivering a title.

And now the school’s softball team is poised to make a run at a state championship, which would complete a dramatic turnaround in the program under coach Robert Hehe.

“It is just consistency,” said Perry Athletic Director Jennifer Burks, explaining the school’s recent success. “We have not had a lot of coaching turnover, and I think that really helps. We have great athletes at Perry as well. So, even with great coaches, you’ve got to have kids that can play.
“We have built a culture here – or have been working on building a culture here – where success is getting to be an expectation. Coaches buy into that. Families buy into that. And our community does. So, hopefully, we’re kind of seeing that in all our sports.”

The softball team’s breakout season has kept that trend moving.

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The Pumas finished 8-12 last season and lost five high-production seniors from that 2020-2021 campaign. Despite that, the Pumas program has skyrocketed to the top of MaxPrep’s Arizona softball rankings and is rated second in 6A by azpreps365.com with a 19-3 record going into Tuesday’s game at Mesa’s Red Mountain High.

Hehe credits the Pumas’ team-first attitude for the program’s sudden about face.

“The success has come due to team success, not individual,” Hehe said. “I believe all our players are contributing and finding the rewards as a group, not individuals.”
Assistant coach Malayna Bernier agreed.

“This year is truly a team effort,” Bernier said. “All 15 of our players are heavily contributing, and everyone has a role.”

The Pumas have gotten key contributions from the junior pairing of infielder Noelle Gumm and pitcher Alexa Ortiz.

Ortiz leads the pitching rotation with a 1.20 ERA and six victories. She has yielded just 27 hits while facing in 170 batters.

Meanwhile, Gumm leads the team in almost every major offensive category with a .443 average, 27 hits, 24 RBI and a slugging percentage of .721.

“These two have filled big roles for us on the field this year, and I’m really excited that they are only juniors,” Bernier said. “Next year, the two of them and some others will fill huge leadership roles our current seniors are in.”

Going from the hunter to the hunted brings added pressure to a team, but the Pumas believe it is nothing they cannot handle. And they’re still doing some hunting of their own – for a state championship.

“We expect to travel far into the playoffs and make a run at the state championship,” Bernier said. “We actually talk about being a ‘target’ quite often with the kids. They are great at handling that pressure; it just means that we can never take a day off because we will always get a team’s best pitcher and best lineup when we face them.

“I have a ton of confidence in our kids and have no doubt we will do well as long as we remain healthy and focused.”

#2 Amiya Hernandez runs home after her homer to left field, cutting the Gator lead to just one in the third inning. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

The Pumas were reminded that they’re that target when they fell to Xavier College Prep Gators March 29, 13-3. It was their first loss against an Arizona team this season, and Perry bounced back with victories against Chandler Basha and Chandler High before falling to Tempe Corona del Sol.

“Yes, the Xavier loss was tough, but did give us information to learn from,” Hehe said. “We play one day at a time and try to get better game to game. We just go out and play well every game.”

Only a year removed from missing the playoffs entirely, the Pumas are aware that they can cap off an incredible athletic year for the school, but they’re not looking ahead. Instead, they’re focused on blocking out outside noise and enjoying the moment.

“We’re not throwing out there that we’re making it to the state finals or anything. We’re excited where we are,” said Burks, the athletic director. “We’re excited to keep seeing what happens with this team and watch this team develop.”

No matter what this year’s team accomplishes in the postseason, the future appears bright for the softball program.

“The girls will be state contenders for years to come,” Bernier said. “We have lots of talent coming up through our program, and we have noticed that the talent in general in the Valley is much more spread out across schools than it used to be.

“Any of the 10-plus teams could take the state title this year and in the ones to come.”

Dominic Rivera daw-mee-nee-k rih-ver-ah (he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Dominic Rivera expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

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