At first glance, Willow Canyon softball appears to be one of the high-level Arizona spring sports teams affected the least by the cancellation of the 2020 season after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state’s schools.
The Wildcats’ roster included only two seniors, and one of those missed all nine games with an injury. More than half of coach Donnie Tizzano’s lineup was freshmen and sophomores, and new starting pitcher Marissa McCann was a freshman.
Yet, what happened in those nine games — particularly Willow Canyon’s five regular season wins — gave the Wildcats reason to believe 2020 was coming together for them.
“We talked about it frequently. Some of the breaks we weren’t getting the last year or two were happening early this year,” Tizzano said. “The what-ifs were starting to go our way.”
Tizzano returned to the program in 2018 after leaving following the 2014 season to coach at a Minnesota junior college. Willow Canyon immediately posted its two best seasons, reaching the double-elimination quarterfinals for the first time in 2018 and going one step further into the final six of 5A last year.
But the Wildcats had not quite broken through against the conference state title contenders. Until this March.
And as Tizzano said, his team had some help in knocking off 2019 runner up Centennial and final four team Phoenix Horizon. A Centennial error led to two runs in the Wildcats’ 3-1 win March 5. Then, he said, Horizon hit three screaming line drives right at Willow Canyon fielders in a 9-8 Wildcats win March 9.
Willow Canyon also beat nearby 6A rival Shadow Ridge 5-1.
While region foes Millennium and Verrado might have an argument, it is more likely the Wildcats already beat their three toughest regular season foes and had a shot at going undefeated.
“We finally had a target on our back and everybody on the team enjoyed it,” Tizzano said.
Their lone senior starter, infielder Breanna Gonzalez, stated in a Twitter interview that she was looking forward to this year because she saw that this team is scrappy. Gonzalez sat out the first half of the 2019 season after transferring from Shadow Ridge and knew this group of young girls was special very early in her time at Willow Canyon.
She said after the three big early wins, she had no doubt the team would go undefeated in conference play. However, she said, players did not talk about winning the state title for quite some time because they did not want to jinx anything or think too far ahead.
“This season would have truly been an unforgettable season because I knew we had a chance to play in that championship game, which hurts the most. The team has improved tremendously because we used the last year’s playoff game against Ironwood Ridge as fuel every time they step on the field,” Gonzalez stated.
Eventual 5A champion Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge knocked out Willow Canyon 3-1 in a 5A elimination game last season. A controversial out call in a tag up situation at third base ended the Wildcats 2019 season in the middle of a late rally.
The Nighthawks were a heavy favorite to repeat, with a good portion of their pitching and lineup back and University of Arizona commits Devyn Netz and Allie Skaggs transferred in from out of state. Willow Canyon was hoping Ironwood Ridge would be his measuring stick.
“That was our target. That’s a quality team and very well-coached,” Tizzano said. “We lucked out last year with Sunrise getting upset. But if we got to Ironwood Ridge this year and even beat them, it wouldn’t be just getting lucky.”
Gonzalez said she is happy everyone involved with the team is healthy.
But, she admits, knowing all of the hard work these girls put into this season, the abrupt ending was truly heartbreaking.
“After five-hour practices there would be a handful of girls, including myself, and we would just ask coach for extra ground balls or front toss because we were always hungry to be better. That drive is very hard to find in a team but at Willow it came naturally. To this day, the team and I talk about how far we could have went,” Gonzalez stated.
And the promising early season wins were not accomplished with a full roster. Willow Canyon’s other senior, pitcher Rachel Broussard, suffered a concussion in a car accident just before the start of the season and did not get to play a single game her senior year.
Tizzano said her experience in the circle would have helped lessen the load on McCall, who was pitching only every three or four days, and sophomore reliever Alannah Rogers. Plus he said, freshmen McCann, Trinity Kennemer and Sarah Melton were seeing more time in the lineup and just figuring out how to approach the high school level.
“To us, we weren’t anywhere near firing on all cylinders,” Tizzano said.
He also said this group is more resilient in the face of this adversity.
“The girls got over it a lot quicker than I did,” Tizzano said.
However, the coach was quick to point out that the 2021 team will not take off simply by plugging someone in Gonzalez’s spot. She led the Wildcats with three home runs and 19 RBI, and her .448 average was second on the team.
And her effect on younger players went far beyond the box score.
“Bree was a calming force in the middle of our lineup. There’s that big sister mentality she brings. It’s more than losing one bat in the middle of your lineup,” Tizzano said.
Gonzalez’s leadership did not end when the season was called early.
“I’ll call the girls to see if they wanna go on a three-mile run, hit in the net, play pepper in my backyard, and I’ll make them a protein shake after. We do that every day. To see them grow not only mentally but physically as well has been awesome because as a captain I know I’m getting my job done whether it’s on or off the field. The only thing we have truly talked about was playing in that championship game because of the hot streak we left off on. But with the work these girls have put in all year, they will be capable of doing what we did this year, into next year,” Gonzalez stated.
And in her case, the future also is bright. She announced her signature of a letter of intent with Division II University of Hawaii-Hilo on Jan. 29.
The coach noticed the relief in Gonzalez’s face after she committed to Hawaii-Hilo.
“I’m super excited to start the next chapter of my life at Hawaii-Hilo because not only will I be going to college in paradise but my best friend Sara Bhatt from California signed to Hilo as well as a pitcher. So it’s like I’ll have a little piece of home with me on this journey. What had stood out to me about the school and program was that anyone there was willing to help you whether if they knew or not. The administration did everything they can to make this transition easy for me and my family and are greatly appreciated for that. The coaches and players were very welcoming when I came on my visit and that was something I’ll never forget,” Gonzalez stated.
And the program she leaves behind is en excellent shape.
This year, Willow Canyon played its top teams out of the gate and best region foes (Millennium and Verrado) at the end of the year.
Tizzano said that probably will not be the case with next year’s region, as Glendale, Independence, North Canyon, Washington and West Point have not done much recently.
But the coach can take solace that this young group is driven to take the Wildcats program to new heights.
“I hear a lot that they’re looking forward to February instead of it being club, club, club,” Tizzano said.