Aubrey Maya had only decided this would be her final year of competitive softball a few weeks before.
She and the rest of her Centennial teammates had no warning that March 5 would be their final game. After a blazing start, Centennial fell 3-1 to fellow Northwest Valley 5A contender Willow Canyon that night and was looking for redemption.
The week off before a tournament at Hamilton turned into more than two months off. Returnees from the 2019 5A runner up squad lost their chance for redemption.
Maya was one of five Coyote seniors this season. In early February she signed to play for New England College in New Hampshire but quickly changed her mind.
“It wasn’t the right fit for me. I’m back to square one,” Maya said. “I decided not to play softball in college. I was more like 50/50 about it but decided just before the season. That’s why it’s kind of harder for me because this was my last season of softball.”
Maya joined the program before the 2017 season, like coach Randy Kaye. Maya said she is grateful this senior class got to grow up and learn from the club coaching veteran.
Kaye said Maya quickly became a foundation piece for a two-year turnaround from a .500 team to state finalist. He said she played every position in the field except first base and catcher.
Marley Burd and Jaydin Gonzalez joined Maya and three other players as freshmen on the varsity. But only those first three played all four years for Centennial.
“I had been sending text message updates to the kids regularly. On the day it was canceled I called up each senior. They’ve been pretty devastated. It was pretty emotional for some of them. I felt bad for them,” Kaye said.
Two new members of the class of 2020 arrived for the 2019 season. Adrehna Crow worked her way up through the junior varsity and into an opportunity at Glendale Community College next spring.
The other arrival was more impactful, and probably a bit more awkward. A couple of months after knocking Centennial out of a winner-take-all 5A semifinal and pitching Vail Cienega to its second straight state title, Mariah Lopez moved to Peoria and joined the Coyotes.
Lopez said the her first year at Centennial was uncomfortable, even though players tried to make her feel welcome. She said she did not feel like it was her place to speak up last season.
As it turned out, the 2019 team had too much front line pitching. Sydnie Sahhar, now at Grand Canyon University, was the ace and Lopez (17 2/3 innings), sophomore Meghan Golden (30 2/3 innings) and senior Dren Meginnis (15 innings) were left vying for cameo time in the circle.
“Last year there wasn’t enough pitching time for the talent I had,” Kaye said.
The calculus was much more simple this year. Lopez grabbed the ace role and pitched 32 innings without giving up an earned run.
Golden supported her and only allowed one earned run in 17 innings of work.
“I think the returning players got the taste of getting there and were determined to get back,” Kaye said. “I felt really good about our team. The team chemistry, believe it or not, was better than last year.”
The makeup of this team was fairly new. In addition to the five seniors, juniors Golden and Alex Thiel are also back, as are sophomores Adyson Maya and Cadence Walding.
Five freshmen came in and several of them were in major roles.
“We always had the same girls for almost three years. So this year was very different. It was a different dynamic, and we taught them to play and what was expected of them,” Maya said.
Kaye said he spread the message of this squad peaking in May, instead of fretting over early season losses. Yet the Coyotes came out of the gates surprisingly fast, winning the opening Sunrise Mountain tournament with a 5-1 record. The young group beat Sunrise Mountain, Willow Canyon and Phoenix Xavier Prep and allowed four runs in six games.
“Normally I’ve been on a team with mostly upperclassmen. Our chemistry was getting really good,” Lopez said.
Beating Sunrise Mountain in the tournament took Maya by surprise. The Mustangs had most of their team returning following a perfect regular season and two wins against Centennial.
Kaye thought his team could compete with Sunrise Mountain, particularly later in the season once the freshmen gained more experience. But the 2-1 win Feb. 29 showed the Coyotes quick growth curve.
“What did surprise me was how some of those younger kids came in and filled roles,” Kaye said.
Cadence Walding was one example, filling in able for four-year starter Makenzie Celaya behind the plate. Her younger sister, Sierra, saw some time in the lineup as a freshman.
Fellow freshmen Lauren Carbajal and Ella Kirkeby were starting to make bigger contributions in the lineup. And the seniors were finding their voice to lead the way.
“We might not have been vocal in the past but we’re going to need to speak out more,” Maya said. “We wanted to focus more on hitting and not relying on our defense so much.”
And by this time Burd, Lopez and Maya had bonded and become the 2020 leadership crew.
“I was mostly close with Marley and Aubrey. They are truly genuine people and leaders on and beyond the field,” Lopez said.
This year, a couple opponents asked to move games back to mid-March, so Centennial only played two games before the regular season abruptly ended.
The Coyotes clobbered Millennium 10-0 on March 3, then lost on the road to Willow Canyon 3-1.
Centennial regrouped and was preparing for the Hamilton tournament when the spring sports season stopped in mid-March.
“We were all looking forward to coming back and having practice after spring break,” Maya said. “At first I didn’t believe it. It is just starting to hit me that it is over. It’s probably going hit me at graduation.”
The team waited, expecting that play might resume in April or at least before the playoffs.
But on March 30 the Coyotes learned that the spring sports season was over. And they were one of a host of 2019 runners up denied a shot at redemption.
“I just assumed it would be a three-week or a month break. It was tough for all of us, especially our seniors,” Lopez said. “We didn’t get that chance to prove ourselves.”
Lopez said she think the team will get together at least one more time once the stay at home orders ease.
Recently, the Coyotes put together a virtual senior night. Coaches painted their numbers on the field and players and their families stopped by one at a time for a short ceremony and to collect their varsity letters.
“The senior night was so nice. It was really thoughtful of them,” Lopez said.
Kaye said the last he heard, Gonzalez not sure if she will play in college.
Maya said she plans to decide in the next week whether she will attend Alabama A&M or the University of Hawaii. She wants to study zoology.
Burd will play at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Lopez had quite the odyssey in his school, pitching Cienega to state titles as a freshman and sophomore. Then she returned to the 2019 state final with Centennial but came out of the bullpen.
She said her favorite memories were the long bus trips with teammates. With Cienega, those trips were to tournaments in Bullhead City and California, and Centennial would head across town for tournaments.
Lopez’s Desert Thunder club teammate Halle Morris signed with Utah, piquing her interest. She connected with pitching coach Cody Thompson, sealing her decision to sign with the Utes.
None got the ending they wanted. But Kaye is sure they will bounce back
“I keep telling them this is no different than having an error on the field. All you can do is pick up some dirt and let it drop and move on,” Kaye said.
That said, he does agree that this team missed out. The Coyotes defense had mishaps but was improving. He said the sophomores and juniors were working hard.
Kaye said he believed Centennial was on the short list of teams — along with Tucson Empire, Sunrise Mountain and Willow Canyon — looking to knock Ironwood Ridge off the pedestal.
“I truly did expect that we would be right back there at the end,” Kaye said.