Even with 10 players who have signed national letters of intent with Division I colleges, Phoenix Desert Vista isn’t even the top-ranked team entering the high school softball season.
That distinction belongs to defending 6A Conference champion Chandler Hamilton, which features two players who have committed to Arizona State, another two to Auburn and one each to Indiana, Butler and Seattle.
Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor has eight returning seniors – led by Haley Busby and Savana Avilla (both Virginia-bound) – who have signed with four-year colleges and two juniors who have committed to colleges.
Welcome to the Arizona high school softball landscape, where at some schools, a Division I college commitment doesn’t guarantee a starting spot.
When Susie Parra pitched Scottsdale Chaparral to a state title in 1989, she was the only player to go on to play Division I college softball.
Ten years later, her sister, Jessica, made all-state at Phoenix Mountain Pointe, part of the 1999 state championship team that ended up ranked No. 2 nationally in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and sent girls to Massachusetts, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Mississippi and New Mexico State.
Now, more teams are stacked with Division I commits due to the acceleration of club ball.
Hamilton coach Rocky Parra, the father of Susie and Jessica, has seen the evolution of high school softball in Arizona over the past 30 years.
“Nowadays, if a girl does not play high-level club ball year-round, she will not make our high school team,” Parra said. “Parents spend a lot of money, and the girls that want it put in the time to get better. There are so many quality club teams that run great practices and play in more showcase tournaments almost weekly. Club ball is now a big business and the parents are willing to pay big bucks in search of a scholarship.”
Weather and geographic proximity to California has turned Arizona into a year-round softball state. And because of the rising costs of college tuition, parents are spending $150 to $275 a month for their daughters to play for high-level club teams. More Division I-committed girls are paying anywhere from $40 to $60 an hour for private pitching, hitting and fielding lessons.
“Despite that, receiving a full athletic scholarship in softball is rare and is almost exclusively given to pitchers,” said Ted LeClair, the father of Phoenix Country Day sophomore infielder Audrey LeClair, who has committed to Michigan.
Kevin Conway has driven thousands of miles, taking his daughter, Nic, a junior pitcher who was azcentral sports’ Small Schools Player of the Year last season at Tucson Catalina Foothills, to club tournaments around the country.
“The highest levels of club softball are ultra-competitive and filled with great players from the top of the lineup to the bottom,” he said. “There are no free outs in a club softball game, whereas, in high school, the lineup may include a handful of high-level players. The strongest high schools have lineups filled with club softball players that are playing year-round.”
Just on Parra’s Hamilton team, his eight returning players played on Firecracker club teams to get ready for the high school season.
That includes sophomore catcher Macy Simmons, who got offered by Auburn before even playing much varsity softball. She was backup last season to All-Arizona catcher Karlee Arnold, who since moved to Colorado, opening up that spot for Simmons.
“Macy Simmons is the real deal,” Parra said. “She has more talent than Karlee, but Karlee had a great year and did not give up her position. (Auburn coach) Clint Myers jumped at the chance to (offer) her. Big, strong, unbelievable arm and solid as a rock behind the plate. She will bat fourth for us. I can’t imagine a better catcher in the state.”
Desert Vista coach Phillip Becerra has an entire lineup of Division I-bound players this season, led by third baseman Kaylee Dietrich (Grand Canyon), outfielder Tajiah Ellison (Missouri), shortstop Mackenzie Moore (Miami-Ohio), second baseman Rion Simms (Indiana) and utility Brynn Gullinson (Army).
“We’re fortunate to have the athletes we have,” Becerra said. “We have 10 D-I commitments at this point. And they all started with me as sophomores. That year, we finished in the top four. Last year, in the top three with a disappointing finish (blowing a two-run lead in the final inning of the semifinals). This year, they’re hungry. They didn’t like the way it ended last year.”
Pressure comes with a team stacked with college talent.
“I felt last year we had more pressure,” Moore said. “This is our last year. We’ve been so close two years in a row. It’s our last high school year playing ball. We’re going to have fun at the same time and not put too much pressure on ourselves.”
Most of the seniors were on varsity as freshmen.
They’ve pulled the best out of each other through the years, culminating in scholarships.
“We definitely feed off of each other,” Ellison said. “We believe in doing our jobs. It means we’re not all hitting for home runs.
“We are very blessed to have as many girls committed and signed to university as we do.”
Gullinson, a junior, wears a blue shirt with the words “unfinished business” on the back. She knows how tough it is even to start at Desert Vista, let alone win a state championship.
“It’s pretty competitive to get into the starting lineup here, but if you work hard and you bust your butt, you’re assured a spot,” Gullinson said. “We’ve come up short back-to-back, and we know we’re not coming up short this year.”
Desert Vista will have to get through a well-tuned Hamilton team that has become a softball factory under Parra’s watch.
“In our softball academy at Hamilton, I have to back off playing too much ball in the offseason in order to not overwork these girls’ arms and legs, because of the fact that most of them practice twice a week for four hours and play five or six games almost every weekend,” Parra said. “Instead, we focus on strength and conditioning.”