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TEMPE - Retiring Ironwood Ridge High School softball coach Randy Anway knows he won't be back in the Division II state championship game next year.
It's a different story for the team he's leaving behind.
The No. 4 Nighthawks lost to top-seeded Peoria Sunrise Mountain 7-0 in Monday night's state final at Farrington Softball Stadium, but Anway expects them to get right back to where they left off with eight of nine starters returning for the 2014 season.
"They should come back and compete very nicely next year," said Anway, the team's only coach since the school began playing in 2003.
"They should be very confident," he added. "They're going to be a year older and they'll have several upperclassmen, so I think they'll do good things."
Sunrise Mountain (36-1) was playing in its second straight state final and seventh since 2004 - and it showed.
The Mustangs jumped out to a 3-0 lead by the second inning and then rode the arm of their ace, Taylor Nowlin, who threw a two-hit shutout and struck out 12.
Junior Emily Robinson threw all six innings for Ironwood Ridge and struck out three, but she had trouble containing the lively bats of the Mustangs, who registered 12 hits.
"We didn't compete at the plate and that's a big issue," Anway said. "We struggled a little bit, from the pitching standpoint, finding the strike zone.
"All the way around it was probably not our best game."
I-Ridge (28-11) had a chance to score early when sophomore center fielder Merilee Miller put runners on the corners with an infield hit in the first inning, but Nowlin retired 16 in a row from there and only let one more runner on base the rest of the game.
"I have very high expectation for my team next year," Miller said. "I think we're going to come back here because we're all going to be in our prime next year."
Senior outfielder Alexis Clinton, who is headed to play for Eastern Arizona, is the lone starter who won't be back with Ironwood Ridge next year.
However, Monday was the second time she got to play in a state championship game. She was a member of the 2011 team that dropped the 5A-II state title to Glendale Deer Valley.
"We lost six starters last year and started from the bottom," Clinton said. "We had a lot of people doubt us and were able to come together as a team and make it this far is a great feeling."
The Nighthawks had won 14 of their last 15 coming into the game against Sunrise Mountain. The team's lone loss in that stretch came in the third round of the state tournament and forced it to get to the championship through the losers' bracket.
Clinton said the way I-Ridge came together after that loss was the highlight of her final year, and she thinks Monday's loss could have a similar affect on the team.
"We've got girls with a lot of talent," Clinton said. "They can make it back."
Contact high school sports coordinator Daniel Gaona at firstname.lastname@example.org or 807-7761. On Twitter @DanielGaona13