Armando Quiroz walks to softball practice cradling a bucket of Eegee's in his arms. It's neither a reward for a job well done nor a bribe to get his team's attention.
Quiroz's team won the NJCAA Region I Division I championship by going 20-1 down the stretch, almost two months of must-win, no-margin-for-error softball. You get more than a bucket of Eegee's for that. You get rings, right?
And it can't be a bribe, a motivational ploy, because the Pima College Aztecs were two games shy of playing for the national championship last year.
"The whole focus of this season was to get back to the World Series and win those two games," says Gene Gonzales, Quiroz's long-time assistant coach at both Flowing Wells High School and now PCC.
Quiroz not only has his team's respect, he has its attention. Here's how you can tell: He stands in the dugout and asks for quiet, detailing the Aztecs' travel itinerary to next week's NJCAA Division I softball championships in St. George, Utah.
"The bus will leave at 6 a.m., Monday morning," he says. "That means you'll have to get up at 4:30 or 5 to get packed and be here on time. We'll leave right at 6."
No one groans. There are no gasps. When a group of 18- 19- and 20-year-old young women don't object to a 4:30 a.m., wake-up, it's go time.
Someone jokes that the Aztecs were "dead and buried" at mid-season, losers of five straight games, scuffling, 19-14 overall, with what was supposed to be a juggernaut.
Quiroz doesn't buy the "dead and buried" line, but he laughs when it is suggested someone had gone to fetch a shovel.
Somehow, with seven returning starters from a 56-15 team that finished fourth in the nation, the Aztecs opened 10-9 in the powerful ACCAC.
"At one time," says Gonzales, "we were four games out of last place."
What happened next to Quiroz's exclusively Southern Arizona-bred team was extraordinary. They put up numbers that would've made the 1927 Yankees envious:
• Sophomore center fielder Cynthia Pelayo batted .422 with 22 stolen bases.
• Sophomore outfielder Gemma Contreras hit .399 with 34 steals.
• Sophomore pitcher-DP Yvette Alvarez, who started the season a befuddling 8-11, won 21 of her final 22 decisions. She hit .405 and drove in 83 runs.
• Sophomore catcher Alejandra Ortiz hit .439 with 76 RBIs.
• Sophomore shortstop Aubre Carpenter batted .411 with 27 steals.
• Sophomore second baseman Noelle Medina hit .381.
• Sophomore outfielder Shawna Comeaux batted .376.
"I couldn't understand why we were so mediocre for half a season," says Quiroz. "But it kicked in and we really went on a roll."
To win the region title, Pima had to sweep ACCAC regular-season champion Central Arizona, in Coolidge, the nation's fifth-ranked team. And it did.
The Aztecs attracted so much attention that on Tuesday, UA softball coach Mike Candrea invited Contreras, a Salpointe grad, and Pelayo, a walk-on from Vision charter school, for official recruiting visits next week. He might've invited Sahuarita grad Alvarez, too, but she has already signed scholarship papers at Indiana State, as has Carpenter, a Sabino grad.
This isn't anything new at Pima. The Aztecs won NJCAA national championships in 2004 and 2006 under Stacy Iveson, who is now the lead assistant coach at Arizona. Quiroz, who won state championships in 1999, 2000 and 2002 at Flowing Wells, has been a remarkable successor.
Pima's region-clinching victory at CAC was No. 300 of Quiroz's Pima career. His Aztec teams have gone, in order, 38-16, 52-17, 57-11, 51-14, 56-15 and now 46-17. That's an average of 50 wins per year, yet he has never been ACCAC Coach of the Year.
That's how good the league has been.
It's not like Quiroz sits back and hand-picks softball-blessed Southern Arizona prospects that NCAA schools throw back.
He discovered all-conference outfielder Contreras unconventionally. She had a baby early in her senior year at Salpointe, but hit .386 in the final half of the 2011 prep season.
"Gemma called and asked if she could try out," Quiroz says. "It's one of the best phone calls I've ever had. She's an honor student who wants go to medical school. She's a devoted mother with great support from her family. Gemma is such a hard worker; she hates it when we have a day off. I just love her."
Quiroz found Pelayo in a tryout camp. She wore an all-blue Sunnyside Blue Devils uniform even though her charter school didn't have a softball team.
Although two Pima coaches voted not to offer Pelayo a roster spot, Quiroz was intrigued. He put her on the team, on the bench, actually. She didn't play the first nine games of 2012. But Pelayo continued to impress with star-level fielding ability in practice.
"Finally, when we were way ahead one day, I gave her an at-bat," Quiroz remembers. "She hit a grand slam."
Now Pelayo is a first-team All-America candidate and the Aztecs are playing for the national championship.
Eegee's all around.
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or email@example.com. On Twitter @ghansen711