When Rich Stringer took the job as head coach at Buckeye Verrado about five years ago, the softball field looked very little like it does today. The school was still in its infancy.
Now the field is lighted, has green backdrops along the outfield fences, a large batter’s eye in center field, two lighted brick dugouts. The school groundskeeper makes sure the outfield grass is nice and lush while Stringer manicures the dirt in the infield, making it almost as smooth as glass.
It has been a labor of love for Stringer. He also has logged many hours putting his team together.
Last season, the Vipers began to show signs of strength. They entered the Division II state tournament as the No. 9 seed, but went two-and-out in the double-elimination event.
That obviously was not pleasant, but it helped his players gain experience and maturity, gave them an edge.
The Vipers put it to good use in 2014. They entered the 2014 Division II state tournament as the top seed.
Verrado (25-2) had a first-round bye, and opens play at home on Tuesday (May 6) against No. 17 Queen Creek (24-6), which defeated No. 16 Peoria 4-3 in nine innings in the opening round.
“We have to continue to work,’’ Stringer said.
Verrado features an outstanding middle-infield duo in twins Shea and Sierra Smith.
Shea Smith is a defensive whiz and Sierra Smith is a dynamo on offense.
The seven remaining top eight teams to open play on Tuesday after earning first-round byes were No. 2 Vail Cienega (23-7), No. 3 Yuma Kofa (23-4), No. 4 Tucson Canyon del Oro (23-6), No. 5 Tucson Ironwood Ridge (23-7), No. 6 Tucson Sahuaro (24-3), No. 7 Glendale Cactus (22-8) and No. 8 Glendale Raymond S. Kellis (22-5).
Cienega was to play host to No. 18 Tucson Salpointe Catholic (15-9), which defeated No. 13 Bullhead City Mohave 6-2. Kofa was to host No. 14 Marana (23-7), which defeated Goodyear Desert Edge 3-0. Canyon del Oro was to host No. 13 Tucson Sunnyside (15-14), which defeated No. 20 Casa Grande Vista Grande 7-3.
Also, Ironwood Ridge was to host No. 12 Tucson High (20-9), which defeated No. 21 Flagstaff 10-0. Sahuaro was to host No. 11 Phoenix Greenway (24-8), which defeated No. 22 Yuma Gila Ridge 14-4. Cactus was to host defending champion and No. 10 seed Peoria Sunrise Mountain (21-3), which defeated No. 23 Flagstaff Coconino 13-0 in five innings. And Raymond S. Kellis was to host No. 9 Tucson Sabino (20-7), which defeated No. 24 Gilbert Campo Verde 6-5.
Cienega outfielder Shelby Kennedy had 54 hits entering the tournament, according to MaxPreps, had scored 41 runs and stole 21 bases in 22 attempts. Melanie Cross, an infielder-catcher, had 47 hits and 44 RBIs.
Canyon del Oro, with a rich tradition of pitching, had another strong arm in Randi Longville (11-4).
At mid-season, Sahuaro made it known that it would be a title contender by winning the Desert Mountain Invitational in Scottsdale that featured many of the Valley’s top teams. Center fielder Amy Bergeson led the Cougars with 55 hits, and catcher-first baseman Amanda Nicholas had 44 RBis along with 10 home runs.
Cactus should have its hands full with Sunrise Mountain, but has a strong pitching duo in Tatumn Porras (12-2) and Morgan Renyer (10-6).
Raymond S. Kellis rode the pitching of Jessica Rojo and the all-around play of sisters Taylor and Maddie Uden.