Editor’s Note: Over the remainder of what was to be the 2020 spring high school sports season, sports editor Richard Smith will tell the story of teams and players — in particular seniors — that were preparing for major accomplishments this spring, only to see them wiped out as the spread of the coronavirus led to the cancellation of the rest of the school year.
A quirk of the calendar and the COVID-19 pandemic means Cactus softball is not really sure what it missed as its 2020 season evaporated.
The Cobras knew they would be very good. Since Coach Bartt Underwood and his staff got the program cranked up again in 2014, Cactus has finished no worse than fourth place in Division II/4A.
But the regular season started a week later than in 2019, so instead of playing five regular season games before heading to the multi-state Tournament of Champions in Bullhead City, Cactus beat Canyon View 10-2 then headed northwest.
“This time of year was when we play a lot. We were just figuring ourselves out,” senior first baseman and Peoria resident Chloe Theriault said.
Cactus went 4-2 in the tournament, losing to California powers La Mirada and Torrance. They won three straight and headed home after March 7 games.
The team recuperated, had one practice with another scheduled for March 11 that was rained out. Then the Cobras were supposed to play in the annual Desert Mountain tournament March 12-14 before a combination of more rain and coronavirus concerns scuttled that event.
“I told them see you tomorrow. It rained Wednesday through Friday and they canceled the tournament and we never had another practice,” Underwood said.
These tournament were a time for Underwood to tinker with his team against tough competition. Even though the 2019 4A runner-up only lost two seniors, one of those was Alynah Torres — who made some national All-American teams.
Torres was already a star at Arizona State, batting .395 with nine home runs and 31 RBI in the Sun Devils’ 29 games, while the Cobras figured out ways to replace her. Early on, Underwood settled on moving senior Kaytlin Leyvas from catcher to the hole at shortstop.
He said senior third baseman Aubrey Chavez and junior second baseman Hannah DiFabio would have an easier time at short than Leyvas, but moving them from second or third would hurt the overall infield defense more. Plus, Underwood said, Leyvas is not planning to catch at Grand Canyon next year so she was okay with the move — and sophomore Janessa Escobar was waiting in the wings to catch.
While Leyvas - also a Peoria resident - said she is most likely to play first and second base or the outfield for the 'Lopes, she relished the chance to keep speaking up and leading the team at shortstop.
"It gave me a new position to practice. The mindset isn't very different because catcher and shortstop are both leaders of the infield," Leyvas said.
Also, Underwood said, the team jelled already and seemed to realize that it would have to approach things differently without Torres.
While her teammates appreciated Torres’ ability and leadership, her skill level could be intimidating and sometimes some of the hitters were expecting her to carry the offense.
“We mainly kept the focus on chemistry. We knew we weren’t going to win many games with home runs anymore. It was going to be more about situational hitting and sacrifice bunts,” Theriault said.
The six-girl senior class also had to step up and fill the leadership void, since Torres, was the loudest voice on the field as well. Junior McKenna “Bub” Feringa and sophomore Tanya Windle helped.
But Underwood said Leyvas and Chavez took matters into their own hands more than before. Perhaps that is why Leyvas took the cancellation of the season on March 30 so hard.
“We got new jerseys that we never got to wear. She stopped by the house to pick up one for a senior photo with Ed Russell. She told me, ‘When I heard the final word that the season was over, I cried and I was angry.’ But after a while she realized, “What can I do about it,’” Underwood said. “They’re learning about what I’ve told them — It is the most frustrating thing about being an adult, when you have no control over a situation.”
Leyvas said her favorite part of this season was getting to watch her father, Rick, as a first-year Cobras assistant.
The toughest part for her? Seeing how much the whole team, particularly DiFabio and senior outfielder Kaiulani Nowell, improve during the Tournament of Champions to fill the gap left by Torres.
"We all stepped up. We were all following in (Torres') footsteps," Leyvas said. "I think that's what's hitting people hard, what we could have been."
In the two-week period between the pause of the season March 16 and the cancellation of in-person classes and spring sports March 30, some Cobras talked about the hope that Arizona could extend the season into the summer and have playoff games after graduation.
Following controversial 4A title game losses to Tucson Salpointe Catholic the last two seasons, the class of 2020 were denied their last chance.
“Some girls were willing to play in the summer. We do that all the time in club,” Theriault said. “We didn’t get our last shot at the title.”
Chavez, Leyvas and Theriault have solid softball careers set in college. The other three seniors do not, though as Underwood said Savanna Carpenter is a basketball player first who mostly contributed as a pinch runner.
Left fielder Nowell could gave gained a lot from this season. After transferring from Ironwood and missing 2019 with an injury, outfielder/pitcher Serenity Burrell may have needed 2020 even more.
“(Kai) was having her best year by far. She was hitting .500 when the season ended,” Underwood said. “If anybody could have gained the most out of the main season, (Serenity) could.”
Leyvas said thinking about all the players she knows who were hoping to use the 2020 high school and club season to get that first college offer, or improve their college offers, made her grateful to have the chance to play another four.
She committed to GCU late in her freshman year and said she wants to study criminal justice with the goal of becoming an FBI agent.
"I fell in love with the environment of GCU and the campus. I love how it's Christian-based and so close to my family," Leyvas said.
Chavez is playing her college ball just down the street at Arizona Christian University. Theriault is traveling across the country.
She is heading to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, one of the premier universities in Boston, America’s premier university city. Theriault said she plans to study international relations.
“I started talking to a couple of my new teammates. I’ve been looking forward to it for so long but without that transition it doesn’t seem real. The next time I step into a class at school, it’ll be 2,000 miles away,” Theriault said. “The college is amazing and I wanted to get away from home and do something different. It’s a very different vibe than Arizona.”