Tucson’s 1953 city championship softball game matched the Dizzy Dames against the Cine Plaza Flirts. To reach the title game, they eliminated the Tucson Squirts and the St. Mary’s Belles.
The Squirts and the Flirts? The Belles and the Dames?
Oh, how softball has changed over the last 64 years. It has become Tucson’s signature high school sport, with more state championships (41) since 1980 than any sport except wrestling.
Canyon del Oro plays for its ninth state title Tuesday night at ASU’s Farrington Stadium and ordinarily the grab-your-attention storyline would be that Dorados coach Kelly Fowler is attempting an unprecedented three-peat.
That is, Fowler is in her third term as CDO’s softball coach, leaving after winning state championships in 2005 and 2011, and then returning in 2015 with the same master’s touch: the Dorados are 89-14 in her third term.
But a bigger story could be that the No. 1-seeded Dorados might have as much talent as any team in Tucson history, which is a local version of trying to rank the best New York Yankee teams.
CDO softball players have already accepted scholarships to Wisconsin, Utah, Syracuse, UTEP, Georgetown, Seattle and Cal-State Bakersfield. Those who remain uncommitted include .490-hitting sophomore Hope Banales and freshman pitcher Amya Legarra, who leads the CDO staff in everything from victories to strikeouts.
Fowler doesn’t bite on the “best ever” narrative.
“I’m not sure about that,” she says. “You’ve got to remember how many good players have come through our program.”
From 2007-09, when Fowler sat in the bleachers to watch daughter Kenzie become the national player of the year, the Dorados went 99-8 and won three state titles under coach Amy Cislak. Later, when Fowler sat out three seasons to follow daughter Mattie’s career at Nebraska, Stephanie Nicholson coached CDO to a 94-19 record and another state championship.
And it’s not just a singular pocket of talent at CDO that supports Tucson’s reputation as Softball City. Cienega, Sahuaro, Empire and Tucson all remain in contention for 2017 state championships. A year ago, Ironwood Ridge, Pueblo and Catalina Foothills won state titles.
Pima College softball coach Armando Quiroz, who retired as a school teacher last month, said he hasn’t been tempted to walk away from the Aztecs’ powerful softball program.
“There’s just so many good players in Tucson,” he says. “I don’t want to miss out.”
Fowler was at the beginning of Tucson’s emergence as Softball City, pitching Marana High to the 1980 Division II state championship game (losing to San Manuel). A day later, Santa Rita won the first state softball championship in Tucson history; 40 have followed.
Because organized fastpitch softball was played in Tucson as far back as the World War II days, it’s probably not accurate to label Fowler as a softball pioneer. But she was there when the carts and horses were still working their way across the prairie.
“I started playing Bobby Sox softball at Jacobs Park when I was 10,” she remembers. “I got my bat like everyone else at an old Yellow Front store near Prince and I-10 for $10. That was 1972. Growth for the sport had been in slow-motion.”
By 1974, the Amphitheater Little League expanded to 150 Bobby Soxers. Fueled by legal brushfires after several girls were denied opportunities to play on a boys Little League team, softball and Title IX opportunities expanded for Tucson’s for female athletes.
By 1980, Tucson had its first state champion.
Fowler didn’t play college softball because the UA didn’t offer softball scholarships. She earned a degree in education, became a teacher, then a mother, but coaching was part of her DNA.
“It’s in my blood,” she says, a reference to her father, Norm Patton, who coached Marana to three state basketball championships and became Pima College’s first men’s basketball coach. “I always knew I’d coach.”
Coaching softball in the ’80s and ’90s was significantly different than coaching today. Patton played on Marana High’s tennis and volleyball teams (softball was a fall/winter sport then).
Now softball is virtually year-round, a travel-ball sport that often had Fowler and her family leaving town 25 weekends a year when she and her husband, Lance, coached the nationally-powerful Desert Thunder organization.
“A lot of girls from my generation and even in the ’90s started playing softball at 10 or 12,” she says. “Now you start at 6. If you don’t start at that age, you will have difficulty making up the reps.”
CDO junior catcher Alexis Kaiser, daughter of former UA and NFL linebacker John Kaiser, is hitting .424 with 14 home runs. She committed to Syracuse when she was 14. Sophomore pitcher Halle Morris, who is 9-1 even though she missed much of the season with a broken leg, committed to Utah at 14.
It’s not the same game that Kelly Fowler played when her 1980 Marana Tigers played in the state championship game, but some things never change.
“I love the butterflies you get in games of this stature,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been in the big games, you still get that adrenaline rush. I just love it. I’m so happy for our kids. I really want them to experience that.”