Recent Valley Vista graduate Josette Orion was at work when she heard she was losing another season of softball.
In the last week of June, word leaked out that the Maricopa County Community Colleges District recommended canceling athletics at its schools for the 2020-21.
And this was the softball season Orion had dreamed of. Last fall she signed with national junior college title contender Phoenix College, led by Arizona and NJCAA Hall of Fame coach Heinz Mueller.
“Coach Heinz send out a big group text that let us know how disappointed he was. I was so devastated that I wanted to go home from work at that point. You work so hard to get to this point in your career,” Orion said.
In the next week he would realize many players, parents, coaches and people with no direct ties to Valley junior colleges felt the same way.
In response, a change.org petition to Governor Doug Ducey and the MCCCD gathered more than 17,000 signatures to stop the cancellation. Steven R. Gonzales, MCCCD Interim Chancellor, will host two virtual forums for athletes, parents, coaches and the community to voice their concerns from 5 to 6 p.m. July 8 and 9.
“It’s really been nice to have so much support and realize how many people want this for us. Even people who don’t follow JUCO sports realize how important this is for us in building our character,” Orion said.
More often than not athletes look at junior college programs to catapult them to the right university for their sport and their career goals.
From the 18 schools West Valley covers, 36 athletes in the Class of 2020 signed with MCCCD programs. Three sports make up an overwhelming majority of these signees — baseball (15), girls volleyball (9) and softball (7).
The impact is not as pronounced in Surprise. Orion is the only softball player from the city affected, along with Shadow Ridge volleyball player Anabelle Gregory, fellow Stallion graduate and baseball player Bradey Bejarano and Paradise Honors baseball player Hayden King — all of whom signed with Glendale Community College.
Count Orion among those players hoping to use a Maricopa community college career as a catapult to a university. She said she knew she wanted to start at a community college since they are more cost effective and close to home.
She enjoyed Phoenix College and the girls on the team. And Orion knew Mueller’s reputation and attention to detail would set her up for a university career.
“The coaching staff is amazing. I really enjoyed the way coach Heinz interacted with the girls. And the girls were super inclusive and supportive,” Orion said. “Phoenix College is No. 1 in the nation. If players want to move on, he gets them there.”
Bejarano was already getting to know his future GCC teammates and coaches when the possibility of another lost season brought an end to summer workouts.
"It was such a big step going from high school to working out with college players," Bejarano said.
Even if it was temporary, a loss of local junior college sports would cut the Bejarano family deep. His mother, Vicki, played for a national softball championship team at Glendale then signed with New Mexico State.
His father, Brian, played at Central Arizona College in Coolidge before starting a minor league baseball career. Official for Central Arizona confirmed on June 25 that the school will compete this season.
"What is different in Maricopa from Cochise and Central and other schools competing?" Vicki Bejarano asked. "Are there other things that need to be addressed that we as players and parents can help with?"
When the recommendation to wipe out the sports in 2020-21 was made public, Orion also wondered what Coach Mueller would do.
Now she knows either way, she will study at Phoenix College in preparation to study occupational therapy. And she will get some form of study in softball as well.
“Even if they do cancel sports we would still be practicing as a team. We just wouldn’t have games. That to me is still worth it because I’m still with a team and my skills are still progressing,” Orion said.
Things are not as clear for many other athletes, particularly in spring sports. The NCAA extended the scholarships of players who had their spring 2020 seasons wiped out and the typical summer recruiting season has been delayed.
So there is not much available for JUCO athletes who may be without a home. Vicki Bejarano said local club baseball coaches have discussed creating some sort of fall league with games and workouts if local players lose community college opportunities.
"Everybody is in the position where seniors are coming back to Division I schools, everything is up in the air and the recruiting periods were pushed back," Vicki Bejarano said.
Bradey's older sister, Hayley, plays NCAA Division I softball for the University of Central Florida and no decisions have been made yet about canceling or changing the Knights' schedule. Vicki Bejarano coaches a club softball team that just finished its summer season with a tournament in Williams.
So she said she would like to see a bit more consistency across the board and the MCCCD to consider alternate proposals for sports and show a bit more flexibility with time frames for their decisions on their seasons.
To sign the petition to keep Maricopa Community College sports, visit this page.
After seeing most of his senior season at Shadow Ridge wiped out by COVID-19 and staring at another lost spring, Bradey Bejarano said the petition and its reach in the community has been a symbol of hope.
"Just seeing how many people have signed is heartwarming," he said.