WILLCOX — One year removed from a final four appearance, the Willcox softball varsity struggled to reach elite status this season but still managed some promise as it tried to start a climb back to the top this season.
The Cowgirls managed a final No. 12 ranking and reached the second round of the state playoffs before bowing to No. 5 San Manuel.
Willcox was 7-5 in its region and finished fourth in a region that produced two of the top four teams in the state. But the Cowgirls also struggled in the middle of the season, losing five in a row before winning three of their last four and finishing 7-9 overall.
The season highlight was a 16-8 victory over No. 21 Alchesay in the first round of the state tournament May 1 in Willcox. Head coach Trevor Ward had made a bold prediction that they would win that game and advance in the tournament despite roster adjustments late in the season to adjust to key injuries.
“I was a little nervous for a minute about my prediction that we would win,” Ward said. “Then I kind of backed off, the girls calmed down, and then we started putting the ball in play and we scored runs.”
The Cowgirls jumped out to a 5-3 lead after two innings, but Alchesay rallied for five runs in the third for an 8-5 lead that produced those anxious moments.
“Alchesay’s game plan was to start a slower pitcher early, then brought in a faster pitcher with the bases loaded and struck three of us out, but I told coach all she has is a fastball and it may take us an inning, but we’ll get after her,” Ward said. “And an inning and a half later is when we scored a whole bunch of runs and kind of rolled on her. “
Winning pitcher Maddy Whitfield helped herself out with a key two-run double during a six-run outburst in the bottom of the third that put Willcox back on top, 11-8. Senior center fielder Gabby Acosta added a three-run homer in the sixth to put the game away.
“The girls were excited about the win and definitely excited about going to the next level and playing San Manuel,” Ward said.
San Manuel got a big pitching performance and eliminated Willcox, 12-2, on May 3 before the Miners were sent home in the next round by Morenci.
Ward will return most of his team intact next season, with Acosta as the only departure from a young team that will be led by the sophomore Whitfield and freshman shortstop Jazlyn Felix, who was three-for-four in the Alchesay victory.
The Cowgirls also return a trio of junior leaders — catcher Daniella Pando, third baseman Serena Villegas and outfielder Tapanga Alexander — to give them a shot at passing Morenci and Thatcher for a crack at defending region champion Benson next year.