They’re No. 1 — not just in the region or in 3A, but the entire state.
Even Paradise Honors softball coach Paul Hatcher chuckled a little about his team’s top MaxPreps ranking in Arizona and No. 26 spot in the website’s national composite rankings.
“It’s funny, I didn’t know anything about the MaxPreps ranking until someone congratulated me for being ranked No. 1 in Arizona,” Hatcher said
The longtime Glendale Community College baseball coach and fifth-year skipper of the Lady Panthers did not say his team was better than the best of the 5A and 6A powerhouses.
But he does believe Paradise Honors enjoyed the best coronavirus-shortened season of any softball squad.
The Panthers finished 13-1, won two tournaments and beat every team they played. Most amazing Hatcher, they played 14 games in 10 days with a 12-player roster available.
“What they did was as incredible as anything I’ve seen,” Hatcher said. “My girls had what so many did not. We god to celebrate a championship.”
Two of them, in fact. And Paradise Honors knocked off some legitimate big school competition to hoist both trophies.
The program had steadily improved, peaking last year in its first season in 3A with a 22-6 record. However, the ending was tough and unexpected — No. 9 seed Sahuarita started a run of upsets to reach the state finals, knocking off No. 8 Paradise Honors 4-3.
Fueled by that loss, and returning seven of its starting lineup and its top two pitchers.
“I was super excited for this season. There is so much talent and I knew even from preseason that we were going to do well. As a team, our mental toughness and our relationships with one another had improved more than anything from last year.
Everyone was always locked in and ready to do whatever it would take to win,” senior outfielder Madelyn Cox stated in an email interview.
After starting out with a 21-1 pasting of ALA-Queen Creek, the Panthers dove into the Wrangler Classic in Wickenburg, beat Canyon View and gained a measure of revenge by beating Sahuarita 10-2.
Tucson Empire, a 5A semifinalist last season, handed Paradise Honors its only loss. After that 7-0 defeat, Hatcher’s team knocked of Tucson Rincon and Verrado.
“Our performance in the Wickenburg and Apollo tournament was outstanding. We faced very challenging teams but that made us want to beat them even more. We are a very well developed team and it proved that we could go up against anybody,” senior outfielder Makenah Rau stated in an email.
Their reward was a rematch against Empire in the Wickenburg championship game.
The second game stayed scoreless into extra innings before the Panthers finally got two runs off Ravens ace Vanessa Brink in the top of the ninth and held on for the 2-0 win.
“Beating Empire that night was a state championship feel,” Hatcher said. “They were so good and very talented. Our freshman pitcher Samara Romero pitched nine innings, shut them out and was phenomenal. It was the greatest game I’ve been a part of, against a 5A powerhouse.”
Paradise Honors powered through the Apollo Cool Nites tournament until running into 6A Phoenix Desert Vista and freshman pitcher Jocelyn Briski in the semifinals. Again the scoreless game went into extra innings, but this time the Thunder took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth.
With two outs and two strikes on her, sophomore first baseman Amaliee Morales hit a three-run walk off homer. Paradise Honors then dispatched Chandler Seton Catholic 9-2 to win the Apollo title.
“This year was so unique because we won two tournaments in a row, that we’ve never won before. We made Panther softball history. My favorite memories of playing on this team were all the fun bus rides, stopping to eat, going to GCU softball games and our sleepovers,” Rau stated.
The second tournament trophy March 7 was something of a walk-off for the Panthers. Rain washed out a couple of 3A regular season games the next week.
Then the COVID-19 outbreak caused a pause in the season in mid-March.
“As a team, we were putting in our own individual workouts, and trying our best to stay hot so that when the season did we resume, we were still in our groove. I thought that the season was going to resume. Never did I imagine that my senior softball season would be over just like that,” Cox said. “I was pretty upset when the cancellation occurred. Coming straight from my basketball season on the court to playing on the field I wasn’t 100 percent yet and it has been upsetting knowing that I won’t have that opportunity again,” Cox stated.
The spring sports season was canceled March 30. More than a month later, Cox said she does not feel as down because of how many other athletes are going through this.
Rau, meanwhile, was rehabbing a pulled hamstring in belief that her final season would resume.
“When I found out the season was ending I was in shock and it hit me really hard knowing that I won’t ever play at the competitive level again. It was hard because the last game I ever played in, I pulled my hamstring. Now that I look back on it, I played my heart out and I made lifelong friendships that I wouldn’t trade for the world,” Rau stated.
Those were the Panthers’ only two seniors. Rau was batting .474 with 7 RBI before her injury in the 10th game.
Cox was working her way into softball readiness after playing a major role on the girls basketball team. Hatcher said the two seniors helped the team far beyond their at-bats.
“Makenah and Maddie stabilized the team. They were the big sisters to the 11 other girls. They’re going to be hard to replace,” Hatcher said.
The coach and both seniors agree, this was a 3A championship squad. Big non-region games against fellow contenders River Valley and Winslow loomed later in the season.
Rau said she hoped to compete against defending champ Tucson Sabino and Sahuarita. Cox said the path to a state title was at their fingertips.
“I’m in full belief that the Panthers would have been the 2020 3A champions,” Hatcher said.
So the team basically just runs it back in 2021, right? Ten players, including two young stud pitchers, return. Morgyn George will now be eligible after transferring from Shadow Ridge and sitting out the first half of 2020.
It is not that simple, Hatcher said. A lot of good things return, but recapturing the 2020 Panthers’ special chemistry is not like flipping a switch.
“There was no selfishness or negativity. They were one unit out there,” Hatcher said.
Plus, Paradise Honors is moving up to the 4A conference. And titans like Cactus, Tucson Canyon del Oro and Tucson Salpointe Catholic are not moving out of 4A.
Hopefully, the Panthers will get that chance. Rau and Cox did not know when their final game of softball would be — but at least got to lift a trophy at the end.
Both are moving on to new challenges. Rau said she enlisted into the United States Navy and leaves for boot camp June 24.
Cox said she is attending Snow College in Utah, and will pursue a physical therapy degree.
“As a team, we bonded really well. There was a sisterhood that isn’t like any other team that I have been on. Our support and confidence with each other was always present. Long bus rides with the team was always a blast,” Cox stated.