It was March 13, the Friday before spring break and two days before Gov. Doug Ducey and Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman announced schools would be closed an additional week as COVID-19 spread.
Maybe it was to work out some kinks. Maybe it was intuition. Either way, Sunrise Mountain Jody Pruitt called a practice on a day off.
It would be the Mustangs’ last afternoon as a team. They, and other spring sports athletes saw their seasons delayed on March 16 and canceled on March 30.
“I thought we’ve got to get this group together today. And that was our last practice, as it turned out. And we got to do a lot of fun things that afternoon,” Pruitt said.
Senior pitcher Kylee Messmer remembers that practice. The team was warming up on the floor and a senior started to cry.
Coach Pruitt told the group this season was not over and to focus on the future.
But a couple weeks later Pruitt had to text the players with the news that 2020 softball ended early. She went to the Peoria campus get a couple things from my office and noticed a couple girls were crying in the bleachers.
“There’s so many things they’re missing out on. When we talk about the bigger picture they get it, of course,” Pruitt said.
Messmer was there, as was Sunrise Mountain’s other senior cornerstone, senior Sydney Bickel.
Before then, many of the Mustangs realized the season likely was over.
“We hoped it would only be temporary but as more and more weeks of school had been canceled I think in the back of our heads we knew. It hit the seniors and I pretty hard. The day we found out a couple of us went to the Sunrise field and just sat on the field with some tears. It was definitely hard to let go of something we had no control over,” Bickel stated in a Twitter interview.
If any team could have seized on a redemption narrative for the 2020 season or felt cheated by the cancellation of said season, it is the Sunrise Mountain softball team.
The Mustangs chose not to.
Pruitt’s team used dominant pitching from Messmer and airtight defense to secure an 18-0 regular season and No. 1 seed in 2019.
Sunrise Mountain led No. 16 Phoenix Sunnyslope 3-1 going into the seventh inning, only for the Vikings to explode for five runs and pull the shocking first round upset.
“We wanted it to stay there. We did a good job of putting it behind us,” Pruitt said.
As Messmer stated, making that day the focus of this year’s team robs the significance of the now.
And freshmen Camryn Davis, Jordan Harris, Hattie Hearnen, Deven Stradling and Sadie Sua have no memories of the Sunnyslope game anyway.
“The new girls weren’t a part of that last year. We wanted to focus on building them up,” Messmer said.
No one figured to work more with freshen than the ace pitcher.
Messmer was the returning ace but was joined by fireballers Davis — whom Pruitt said throws around 64-65 mph — and Sadie Sua — who she said can reach 61-62 mph.
“Then you throw Kylee Messmer. She’s throwing 57 and spinning the crud out of it, so I wasn’t sure how that would look,” Pruitt said
Bickel said she thought during the playoffs last year the team was not really focused. So a big aspect of this season was to grow as a team together for the state championship.
Pruitt said this team boasted top-level senior leadership — even though it played its first five games without its most prominent senior.
Bickel was a little bit busy when the Mustangs opened their own invitational Feb. 27. She had helped the Sunrise Mountain basketball team beat Cave Creek Cactus Shadows Feb. 26 to reach its first state final March 2 against Millennium.
Bickel got back on the diamond just in time to torture Cactus Shadows softball team too. A day after the basketball title game, Bickel wanted to be back.
“It was hard having to miss out on some of my senior year, but the girls definitely wouldn’t let me forget that I was important to them. They came to every playoff game and supported me,” Bickel stated. “After the basketball state championship, Coach Pruitt gave me an option to come out the next day and play their first away game or take the rest of the week off and I took the first chance I got to play my senior year.”
Pruitt said the plan was to give Bickel a break against the Falcons, maybe pinch running. But in the bottom of the seventh trailing 5-3 she led off as a pinch hitter.
“The other coaches kept asking and I said, no she’s not coming in. Finally in the seventh I put her in. She leads off with a double and we tie the game. She ends up playing four innings and leading to us winning in 10,” Pruitt said.
Bickel was part of a four-player senior class that was split neatly in half. She and Summer Pells played varsity softball all four years.
As freshmen they got the chance to play in the Mustangs’ most recent state final appearance, a 4A title loss to Tucson Canyon del Oro.
“My favorite memories would probably be my freshman year run to state, the long bus rides with the team , and senior fungo golf,” Bickel said.
Pells was in the lineup from game one and came to embody the program’s ethos.
Pruitt said her greatest relief in the pandemic-shortened slate is that Pells signed with Paradise Valley Community College just before her senior season started and did not have to rely on eight games to sell recruiters.
“She was a kid that would demand hustle. She wasn’t mean about it. She just told the girls it was an expectation. I didn’t have to tell the team about it,” Pruitt said.
Messmer and Gil joined the team as sophomores and, since both are home schooled, the team was in many ways their conduit to high school.
Gil started the second half of her sophomore year then took 2019 off before returning. She also will play for Paradise Valley next year.
“I was super bummed for her. She took a year off then came back and played only a couple games. She’s an infielder but we needed her to be in the outfield. She said, ‘Coach, whatever you want to do I’ll do it for Sunrise Mountain,” Pruitt said.
Messmer said she is not going through as much upheaval as friends getting used to distance learning.
But she misses the game and the two things — Sunrise Mountain softball and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — that were her primary connection to campus.
“Even though I didn’t attend Sunrise Mountain I still called it my school. I’m proud to be a Mustang,” Messmer said.
Without Bickel, the Mustangs went 3-2 in their own tournament, falling to Centennial and Phoenix Xavier Prep. They followed with solid but not dominant victories against Cactus Shadows, Gilbert Campo Verde and Maricopa.
Players, though, sensed the team was building up like it did the year before.
“We were definitely trying to figure things out. Losing in the first weekend was new. It was about learning what we could do for the next game. We were starting to get something good going,” Messmer said.
Bickel said Pruitt’s program taught her that being a good teammate is the biggest thing you can do and pushing your teammates to be better is a crucial aspect of that. Even though they had different approaches to high school, Bickel said the seniors all had similar goals and pushed each other each year, made them all close.
She will take that team culture to Louisville, the major Division I school she signed with years ago. She said she plans to study business.
“I’m very excited to leave for college, I have been keeping in contact with my coaches and commits during this tough time. The University really gave me a ‘home’ feeling, I loved everything about the program and location. I wanted to leave Arizona and be on my own so I could live somewhere new and different,” Bickel said.
Messmer also is leaving the state, but will make the shorter journey to Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. She visited the school during a church camp and fell in love with the campus and the college’s Christ-centered atmosphere.
She said she wanted to study in the communications sciences and disorders major with the goal to become a speech pathologist.
“I love it so much. After being on my official visit, I was 100 percent on going there. The incoming 2020 class at Biola this is big. There re six of us and they’re all amazing.”