The chill was in the air Tuesday afternoon, the familiar fall weather having finally crept into the Denver Metro area as it does so often around the time the softball regional and state tournaments are approaching.
But inside the Blow It Up Hitting facility just off Interstate 36 and Broadway, there stood a group of girls waiting to see if Holy Family head coach Mitch Martinez had any final instructions before heading back to the school to depart for the night.
Instead of waiting, a handful of players decided to go off to another area of the complex and do some running.
"That's just the way they are," the fifth-year head coach said. "One girl decides to put in some extra work, and soon a few others follow. It's a good bunch of kids."
Four players in particular have seen where all the extra work has really brought them to in four short years. Seniors Erin Caviness, Sara Rode, Erin Winter and Kaitlyn McKenzie witnessed firsthand the stresses of the Tigers growing into their place in the 4A Tri-Valley League as freshmen and now, along with a good group of sophomores and an above-her-years freshman catcher, are about to take on their regional tournament as league champs and heavy favorites to make a run at the state tournament in Aurora.
The Tigers, of course, have a pretty good pedigree as a program in softball having made the 3A state final several times (and several times against Erie, at that). But the move up to 4A didn't come without moments of reflection. In 2014, before any of those four had stepped on the diamond, HFHS was 7-14 in their first 4A season. A year later, they improved by a game to 8-14, winning their first regional game to show that a little staying the course would go a long way.
Caviness was a featured player on that 2015 team as a freshman, but the other three were steady reserves that eventually made their way into starting roles. Caviness developed into the pitching ace, while Rode has played second base and McKenzie and Winters have patrolled the outfield.
With a couple new coaches on Martinez's staff, the team slowly climbed to 11 wins in 2016 and 15 wins in 2017.
It wasn't just those four players that made the difference, nor is it those four that are the end-all, be-all of this year's 21-2 team as they earned the right to host a regional for the first time in 4A. Their growing together, however, has been an enjoyable experience, Caviness said.
"It's something really special ... and it's just been really cool to see how each of us has grown up as players. How different we're playing compared to when we were freshmen," Caviness said, her numbers currently sitting at 15 wins against 1 loss, a sparkling 2.23 earned-run average and 133 strikeouts to just 32 walks allowed. "We love to compete. I mean, we're competing even in (the facility)."
"I'd known a lot of those girls since they were little, and to see them come through, to see how they've matured as young ladies and as softball players has been pretty cool," Martinez added. "The seniors and the juniors have been together for a long time, and there's just a lot of genuine care for one another there. That's what has helped this be a really great season, because you just don't get groups like this all the time."
You also don't gain 21 wins and claim one of the classification's toughest leagues by happenstance. Sure, an ace pitcher like Caviness can carry a team in many instances, but bad batting and sub-standard defense can also lose plenty of 1-0 or 2-1 games in the sport.
That's why this Tigers team looks pretty dangerous. The speedy squad has a .425 team batting average and has committed but 26 errors in 23 games — which is the third-fewest in 4A. Abby Edwards, the aforementioned backstop who handles all of Caviness's stuff like a veteran, has emerged with a .456 average; sophomore Tyler Whitlock is hitting .470; juniors Anna Martinez and Noelle Gardon each have 29 hits this year; and Gardon and Rode have combined for just eight errors up the middle in over 110 chances.
"We have two really great pitchers (including sophomore Cassidy Chvatal) and a great catcher, and so we just have a lot of trust there," Rode said. "We know they are going to throw strikes, and they know we're going to get the outs for them."
Those numbers can speak to dedication to the craft of each position on the field, as do they echo confidence in each other.
However, it takes two wins in one day to get past regionals and into the state tournament field, and that is still something this group has not been able to achieve in three previous tries.
The message this week? The resume has been good, but the team needs to be able to check-mark every category just the same for 14 innings against some good competition.
Holy Family's quest for state begins with 9-14 Ponderosa, a team that plays in the 5A/4A Continental League and thus has one of the toughest schedules available to them. Also in the region is Northridge (14-9) and Elizabeth (15-8).
"We know what it feels like to get to regionals and not make it to state three times, so we're pushing ourselves to make it because it's our last chance," Rode said. "Erin put it well to us the other day, that as seniors, we don't have any tomorrow's left ... we have to play for today."
"Everyone is trying to get to the same place that we are, so we know that we have to continue to put in work," Caviness said.