Hungry Giants: Top Arizona high school softball teams ready for regular season following Lion Country Classic

Red Mountain sophomore Nina Montenegro, right, approaches home plate to cheers after drilling a leadoff home run against Queen Creek during the Lion Country Classic. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

MESA – The 2024 Arizona high school softball scene is already ablaze. With the regular season beginning this week for numerous programs, multiple state-wide preseason tournaments took place last week to prepare teams for their quest for stardom. However, no tournament may have had a more star-studded cast than the Lion Country Classic.

Founded and hosted by Red Mountain High School since 1996, the Lion Country Classic has served as one of the premier tournaments in Arizona.

“I truly think we have one of the best tournaments in the state,” Red Mountain coach Rich Hamilton said. “Including us, the teams we have in this tournament always have a shot to win the state championship.”

This year’s tournament appeared to be no different as it featured six of the top 10 teams from last season. Two of them – the Desert Mountain Wolves and Basha Bears – are reigning 5A and 6A state champions.

The hottest team of the bunch, however, were the hosts. Headed by a group of college-committed seniors, ace junior pitcher Kendall Cochran, and 18U U.S. National Team sophomore standout outfielder Payton Westra, the Mountain Lions finished the tournament 5-0 and pounced into 6A conference play with serious momentum.

Desert Mountain junior McKinsey Beyer, right, delivers a throw home to force out a runner at home plate against North High School during the Lion Country Classic. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

“As a coach, you always want to face tough competition in games that don’t matter,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, we always want to win, but we face a lot of these teams from the tournament throughout the season. Being able to use these games to figure out how I want to set my lineup and pitching rotations is key.”

With the addition of sophomore infielders Nina Montenegro and Taylor Hampton both hitting over .500 during the tournament, the Mountain Lions have a great shot at completing their three main goals.

“Every year, we go into the season with three main goals,” senior outfielder Payton Maguire said. “We want to beat Mountain View, win our region, and win the state championship. This year, I feel like we have a great chance to complete all three.”

Next up to bat is Queen Creek, coming off a 4-1 record in the tournament, with its only loss coming in a narrow 2-1 defeat to Red Mountain.

The Bulldog bats lit up the Lion Country Classic with a home run barrage, posting a tournament-high 14 big flys. Freshmen catcher/shortstop Alessia Velazquez and utility player Emma Reynolds already made a mark by drilling two home runs each. Senior catcher Makenzi Padilla, a signee with California State University, Northridge, led the onslaught with three.

It’s an excellent start for the Bulldogs and first-year coach Ann Pierson.

“We attack every game with the same plan,” Pierson said. “We can’t focus on the result or the scoreboard. We must focus on the fundamentals and the things we’ve been working so hard on to be successful. If we keep trusting the process, we can achieve what we are striving for.”

Following a loss to Basha High in the 6A state title game last spring, the revamped Perry Pumas came into the Lion Country Classic with a big question hoping to be answered.

“We had a senior (Alexa Ortiz) last year who kept us alive as one of the top pitchers in the state,” senior catcher Raegyn Davis said. “Our rotation is pretty young and inexperienced, so we need to lock in on defense to give them any help they need.”

Luckily for the Pumas, the pitching concerns may not be as alarming following the tournament. Freshman Braylee Harder grinded out 9 2/3 innings while only allowing three runners to cross home plate. The Pumas defense also lived up to Davis’ words, boasting an elite .973 fielding percentage.

One concern the Pumas don’t have is with senior catcher Rachel Connors, an Ole Miss commit. Connors picked up right where she left off last year, posting a monstrous .700-plus batting average. The Pumas still finished the tournament at 3-2, but whatever their record may be, coach Nathan Harder isn’t too fazed.

“Last year, I think we went 2-2 in the tournament before going 2-3 in another one in Bullhead City,” Harder said. “I kept telling the girls it’s not about where you start but where you finish. They trusted each other, and we made a run at the state championship. If we keep that same mentality, we can do it again.”

Basha, Perry’s counterpart in last year’s state championship, went 4-1 during the tournament, and coach Kailey Pomeroy emphasized not focusing on the past.

The Lion Country Classic is an annual invitation to kick off the high school softball season and features some of the best teams and players in the sport. (Photo by Brett Lapinski/Cronkite News)

“To be honest, last season was last season, and this season is brand new,” Pomeroy said. “I know a lot of people have commented on how many returners we have, but this team hasn’t proven anything yet. I don’t want them to feel the pressure to live up to last year so early on. We just need to take it day by day and one play at a time and focus strictly on this season.”

That being said, the Bears still enter the regular season behind a strong senior duo. Middle infielder Gabriella Garcia, an Oklahoma University commit, powers the Bears offense while University of New Mexico signee Natalie Fritz holds it down on the mound. Both players seem on pace for a repeat of last year’s dominance. Garcia finished the Lion Country Classic with three home runs on .529 hitting, and Fritz held opponents to just a .161 average with 20 strikeouts over 16 innings.

“Another state championship would be great,” Garcia said. “But, the main goal for all our seniors is to leave a legacy for our young cubs.”

One particular cub already has an opportunity to be a part of that legacy. With Basha’s third baseman graduating last year, freshman Vaeh Luna started all five games at the hot corner, and Pomeroy noted that she has a strong chance to fill that void for the rest of the season.

Trying to defend a state title of its own, Desert Mountain also exited the tournament with a 4-1 record. Like many other teams, the Wolves don’t care too much about their record in the tournament, but what follows the tournament separates them from the pack.

“Most of the teams in the tournament are 6A,” Wolves coach Chris Fredericks said. “With us being 5A, I think it’s a huge plus playing top competition that we usually don’t see. We get to build our identity more and see who we are as a team.”

This year’s identity is built massively off their elite contact hitting and baserunning.

“I mean we’re fast,” Fredericks said. “We’re going to play small ball and put pressure on the defense every game. The girls thrive on that, and by doing so, it allows other facets of the game to come easier.”

Desert Mountain convincingly led the Lion Country Classic with 36 stolen bases. Their fast-tempo offense was headed by junior outfielder McKinsey Beyer, a Grand Canyon University commit, and sophomore infielder Avery Gehrke, who combined for 16 hits and 17 stolen bases over the five games.

The Wolves did have a few error-prone outings in the field, but more often than not, it might not matter too much with the nearly unhittable sophomore Lilly Goodwin on the mound. Coming off a monumental freshman season where she finished second in Arizona with a 0.26 ERA over 133.2 innings, Goodwin led the Lion Country Classic with 27 strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA in 14 innings of work.

Expect to see some of these familiar faces when May comes around.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Brett Lapinski expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Lapinski interned at Varsity Sports Show, where he was a digital reporter/social media producer.