Centennial softball

Centennial softball lost 5-2 to Ironwood Ridge in the 2019 AIA Softball 5A State Championship game in Tempe. (Photo by Eric Newman)

Centennial softball fell just short of a state title, losing 5-2 to Ironwood Ridge in the 2019 AIA Softball 5A State Championship game in Tempe.

Untimely errors set the Coyotes back early, giving up a run and the lead in the first inning. A solo homer in the third gave Ironwood Ridge a 2-0 lead, while Centennial did not register a hit through three innings.

The Coyotes strung a few hits together, tied the game at 2-2 and seemingly had all the momentum.

But, Ironwood Ridge’s bats got hot in the seventh and final inning. Centennial allowed three runs on a series of quality base hits but could not make up the deficit in the bottom of the inning, so the game was decided.

“I made myself stand there and watch the last outs,” Centennial coach Randy Kaye said. “I needed to feel the sting a little bit, because that’s how you bounce back from it.”

Bouncing back has been the identity of this team all season, though.

Despite being ranked at or near the top of the state all season, the road to the championship game was a rocky one. The Coyotes lost their first semifinal game, 2-0, to Empire on May 11, and faced a deciding contest against the same squad 30 minutes later with a trip to the title game on the line. Including the first game, Centennial went a combined nine innings without scoring a run, but the bats heated up midway through the second game of the day and the Coyotes won 10-0 in the sixth inning by mercy rule.

“I think we made a lot of mistakes that we normally don’t make. I felt our pitching was going to keep us in it, and our lineup is too good to be held down that long. We knew we would get there if we were patient and continued to grind away,” Kaye said after the semifinal round.

Just weeks before, the Coyotes lost a pair of games to rival Sunrise Mountain after being ranked the top team in 5A, scoring just three combined runs in two contests.

Following those losses — the only games Centennial dropped in the regular season against in-conference opponents — the girls had a concrete example of what heartbreak felt like. As sophomore Meghan Golden pitched a shutout in her four innings in the winner-take-all semifinal, she reflected on the two-game series with a city rival as both a turning point in the year and a teaching moment that inspired the Coyotes during difficult situations during the playoffs.

“It definitely motivated us. From those games we went to practice and worked harder,” she said of the team’s mindset after losing to the Mustangs. “We had a talk after the first game here (against Empire), and knew it was just one game and we could come back because we’ve faced tough situations already this year.”

Some tears were shed following the final loss, especially by Centennial’s seniors. However, the runner-up finish is the furthest Centennial softball has reached in postseason play since losing in the championship game in 2010.

A tough ending, Kaye hopes, will motivate the returning girls even more in the offseason and next year. But, second place in the state after nearly a decade of not reaching that point is something to be proud of, too.

“Getting to this game is an accomplishment,” Kaye said. “It had been a while since Centennial was competing at this level. The interest in softball is here now, and I’m really excited to see what is next for this team.”