On the Road to the State Championship, Eric Tatham's Cienega High School softball team took a detour to the most unexpected location: broken down and busted in the middle of nowhere.
"It was somewhere outside Gila Bend," Tatham recalls. "A tire had blown out on our school bus, so we sat on the side of the road for four hours. It was the low point."
The Bobcats were 8-4 on that Sunday morning in March. Their return from the Nike Fastest To First Invitational in Anaheim, Calif., found them accompanied by a pair of unwelcome passengers: discord and division.
With seven returning starters from the 2009 state finalist, including dominating pitcher Alexa Cash, this sudden burst of mediocrity was unacceptable.
"We weren't meshing; we had experienced some infighting, and I told the girls that this isn't how a championship team acts," Tatham says. "I told them to figure it out and come together by the time we got to Tucson."
As the bus finally got ready to roll, Tatham grabbed a shredded piece of rubber from the blown tire. It would not be a reminder of a season-gone-wrong, but a keepsake of the day the Bobcats began to evolve from underachievers to champions.
Cienega blew through its final 20 games, undefeated, rolling through the 4A-I state champ-ionship bracket while outscoring foes 28-2.
On Wednesday, when more than 1,800 students jammed the Cienega gymnasium, celebrating the second state title in school history, Tatham hoisted the championship trophy and pledged that it would have a companion.
The piece of rubber is going to be in that trophy case, too.
"That day on the side of the road was a defining moment for us," he says. "That was the day the team came together."
The Bobcats had all the numbers, including an outrageous .406 team batting average, topped by outfielder Brandi Klein's .490.
In addition to Klein, Cash and .371-hitting catcher Emily Pohl, UA-bound shortstop Ashlee Brawley hit .404, sophomore Stephanie Tatham, the coach's daughter, hit .465, Colorado State-bound recruit Morghan Doughty hit .461, and sophomore Valerie Luera had 23 extra-base hits.
"This team, these girls, were just a dream," says Cienega vice principal Nemer Hassey. "I got goose bumps watching them play Saturday."
And how's this for an endorsement:
"Cienega is one of the best teams I've seen in a long time," says former Sahuaro coach Billy Lopez, who coached six state championship teams. "They were sound. They are well-coached."
Tatham isn't the state championship coach from central casting. After playing second base for the 1987 Tucson High School state championship baseball team, he was unable to extend his playing career at Yavapai College. So he began a long and circuitous career in which he spent 10 years working at Wal-Mart in Tucson and in small-town Toppenish, Wash., while completing his degree at Heritage College, near Yakima.
"I thought I might stay at Wal-Mart; it was a good job, and I was a department manager," he says. "But eventually I wanted to get back to Tucson. I was fortunate to be hired as an English teacher when Cienega opened."
Before Tatham became the head softball coach, he was, of all things, the public address announcer at the school's softball games. He was also the Bobcats golf coach. With the approval of the administration, he essentially traded his golf coaching spot for the softball job with teaching colleague Tim Nichols.
Such are high school sports. You never know.
There is no automatic route to become a successful softball coach. Before Armando Quiroz won three state softball titles at Flowing Wells, he worked in the movie industry as a key grip in set-and-scenery development. He was 49 when he won his first title. Before Amy Swiderski won her first of three state titles at CDO, at 25, she played softball at Boston College.
Tatham, who turned 40 during the season, is making it up as he goes.
When he was part of the Badgers' state championship baseball team, Tatham absorbed the drama as head coach Tom Lundy took his team for a pre-title game workout at a Phoenix high school.
"He showed us a tournament bracket, drawn out from first game to championship game, and the only name on the entire bracket, all the way through, was Tucson High," Tatham remembers. "He said it was our destiny, and it was."
A year ago, before running into powerful CDO in the state final, Tatham tried the same approach. One bracket. One team. Cienega all the way.
"It didn't work," he says now, laughing. "But this year, finally, we found our own way to be champions."
This time sitting on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere worked best.
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