Greg Hansen: Friends remember Urbano, a champion

Eddie Urbano

Courtesy of ASU

At the highest level of girls amateur softball, ASA 18-U Gold, roughly 750 teams start on the Road to Oklahoma City. Do you know how many reach the national championship playoffs at Hall of Fame Stadium? Not many: 73.

One year, 2008, when Kenzie Fowler was the most imposing 18-U pitcher on the planet, Tucson Desert Thunder finished ninth. It was remarkable.

"You're aware that one team has to be the champion every year, but the competition is so difficult you're amazed anyone can be that good," said Lance Fowler, Kenzie's father and Desert Thunder's assistant coach.

Desert Thunder's 2008 season was the equivalent of the 1973 Tucson Cactus League All-Stars and the 1986 Tucson International League All-Stars reaching the finals of baseball's Little League World Series.

The only way to top that is to win it all.

When Fowler and fellow Desert Thunder assistant coach Darren Bryan reached Oklahoma City last week, the one thing that got their attention more than the oppressive 105-degree heat was the 73-team bracket.

"It was loaded," said Fowler. "But I honestly thought we had a chance. Late in the week, I kept telling people, 'It's already scripted. We're going to win it.'"

The field included powerhouses from every corner of the map: the Louisiana Voodoo, the Wichita Mustangs, the Minnesota Sting, the Oregon Silver Bullets, the Atlanta Vipers, the Oklahoma Force and on and on.

Desert Thunder had gone 19-3 in a sizzling group of ASA tournaments in Colorado, Nevada and California. Its lineup was overflowing with scholarship-earning prep standouts like Robin Landrith and feisty Erin Satterfield of Ironwood Ridge, CDO state championship regulars Becca Ziegler, Sammy Nettling and Sammi Noland, incoming UA first baseman Darcy Taylor, Willcox's small-school Player of the Year Nikki Dunlap and Sierra Vista Buena's versatile Kaitlin Wilson.

Per capita, high school softball in Southern Arizona is as probably good as any place in America; since Kelly and Lance Fowler started Desert Thunder in 2001, the program has produced an astonishing 54 Division I scholarship players.

About the only thing missing was the ASA national title.

Over six days, as the Baylor-bound Landrith (she hit a team-high .529) and Miami of Ohio-signee Wilson (she would go 4-0 with an ERA of 0.23) played ridiculously well, Desert Thunder reached the championship series against the Texas Impact of Spring, Texas. To be national champs, the Desert Thunder would have to play three games in 10 hours Saturday, all of it in unrelenting heat, and minus their head coach, Kelly Fowler, who chose not to make the trip.

"It was bittersweet," Lance Fowler said of his wife's absence. "This is Kelly's team, make no mistake about it. She had some of these kids in the program for 11 years. It was courageous for her to stay home."

A few weeks before the ASA Nationals, Lance and Kelly's youngest daughter, Nebraska sophomore shortstop Mattie Fowler, tore up her knee while playing for an USA Elite team in Canada. After the surgery, Kelly did the right thing; she stayed with Mattie. What else would a mother do?

After the Texans won 1-0 early Saturday afternoon, Desert Thunder rallied to win the championship game 2-1. It capped 10 hours of physically and emotionally sapping softball.

"It was one of those surreal moments," Lance Fowler said. "We just kept winning, kept winning, kept winning, kept winning. We have 15 girls on the roster, from many different backgrounds, but they put their egos aside and played to their ability. There are no superstars on this team."

But there are 15 national champions.

It was an especially rewarding time for Satterfield, Landrith and Makayla McAdams, the Ironwood Ridge players whose most intense rival, two-time defending state champion CDO, had kept two outstanding IRHS teams out of state title games in 2011 and 2012.

It could've been an awkward situation - CDO's Nettling, Noland and Ziegler received their state championship rings during the ASA season - but their mutual respect for the rival Nighthawks, and vice versa, helped the team bond.

Now everybody will have a championship ring.

"This became a big melting pot and that was my goal when we started 12 years ago," said Kelly Fowler. "Our shortstop, Morgan McKeever of Sahuaro, has played so many games against those from CDO and Ironwood Ridge. But they put everything aside, forgot their rivalries, and came together. That made it so enjoyable."

This is the end of a notable run for Kelly and Lance Fowler. Kelly coached CDO to four state championships. Together, their 12 years of excellence with Desert Thunder helped to maintain Tucson's place as one of America's hotbeds of softball talent.

They will take the 2012-13 season to take a breath, step back and watch Kenzie and Mattie play college softball. They will not coach/operate Desert Thunder in 2013, although they will stay with the program in a volunteer capacity.

"We started this when Kenzie was leaving Bobby Sox," Kelly Fowler remembers. "She needed to play at the next level, and since Lance and I had both played softball, I said, 'Hey, is there any reason we shouldn't be coaching?'

"Lance said 'we don't have any time to do it. It is 25 weekends out of town every year.' But I said 'we'll make time.'"

And in the end, they made a national champion.