Softball: Erie ready for 18th consecutive state appearance

Paul Aiken
Erie’s Sonoma Toot (left) and Tiffany Maul hope to lead the Tigers back to the softball title game when the state tournament begins Friday.

ERIE — For nearly two decades, making the varsity softball team at Erie High School has practically guaranteed each player a winning season and a deep playoff run every season.

Expecting to return as the starting shortstop her junior year in 2012, the magical Tigers season that was promised to Sonoma Toot was nearly wiped out by a devastating preseason leg injury.

Back to full strength for her final run with the Tigers, Toot has been determined to soak in every moment from the season’s start to whenever it may finish. The Tigers open the state tournament against local rival Silver Creek on Friday.

“I’m so much more excited to contribute in a way that I wanted to my junior year, and in a way that I couldn’t,” Toot said. “I’ve loved being able to lead my senior year and encourage the girls to make it to state. Because it is your senior year, it feels more like the maximum point of your season. Especially after last season, I’m definitely never taking my ability to play for granted ever again. It’s really hard to sit on the bench and watch someone else doing the thing that you love.”

Toot broke the tibia and fibula on her right leg in a collision at first base while playing with her summer club team Colorado Next Level. She was out from July to October but was able to return at less than half strength for last year’s Class 4A state tournament.

Limited to pinch-hitting and a short stint in the field at first base, Toot batted .600 with an RBI in three state tournament games. Back at full strength and ready help lead the Tigers at the 2013 tournament, Toot said she feels the Tigers, as usual, have a legitimate chance to win state if they realize their potential.

“We want to be prepared for the state tournament because it’s the biggest, most important part of our season,” Toot said. “We’re all going to try to take our hard work that we’ve done since preseason and use it towards exactly this goal, which is win.”

The Tigers were knocked out by eventual champion Pueblo East in the 2012 state semifinals last season and Pueblo South eliminated them in the 2011 state quarterfinals. Before that, the Tigers beat D’Evelyn for the 2010 4A title, defeated Burlington for the 2009 3A state crown and took down Holy Family for the 2008 and 2007 3A championships.

The Tigers also finished second in 2006 after taking home state titles each of the previous six seasons.

Each Tigers team is different and this year’s group expected to rely heavily on their pitching. But it’s been their lineup, driven by Toot’s team-leading .521 batting average and 35 RBIs, that has kept them hot down the stretch.

At an uncharacteristically difficult Region 8 tournament, the Tigers committed 13 errors and allowed 22 runs in three games. The offense, however, secured the Tigers’ 18th consecutive state tournament appearance by scoring 40 runs in three games, including a 17-7 win over Evergreen in the Region 8 playback game.

“We have a lot of good hitters,” junior catcher and clean-up hitter Tiffany Maul said. “One through nine in our lineup are threats. We started off pretty slow but we’ve gotten really strong because we’ve been working hard on hitting. We’ve been shooting for batting average and just putting the ball in play and hoping for the best. It’s been working out.”

The 18 different Tigers who have recorded an at-bat this season have combined for a .441 (267-for-606) batting average. On the season, the Tigers have scored 254 runs (11.55 average) and have allowed 71 runs (3.23 average) to opposing teams.

A testament to the Tigers’ percentage-over-power approach, Maul has driven in 23 runs without a home run while batting cleanup this season. Junior Katie Kovets and freshman Rio Sanchez are tied for the team lead with three home runs apiece.

All six of the Tigers players who have appeared in all 22 games this season are batting over .400 and have driven in 20 or more runs.

“I think everyone on our team is capable of having a dominant moment,” Maul said. “But if someone isn’t dominating, then we’re all picking each other up. We’re always helping each other out because it’s a team effort.”

They relied on their pitching early and leaned on their hitting when their pitching and defense abandoned them late in the season. So once again, the Tigers are headed back to the state tournament in 2013.

But CHSAA Hall of Fame head coach Bob Bledsoe has been to the last 18 state tournaments and knows just one or two good areas won’t make up for one bad one against the state’s best.

“We’ll need all three facets of the game hitting on all cylinders,” Bledsoe said. “Otherwise, there’s too many good teams out there. If you’re not solid all around, that can come back and get you.”

Follow Brad on Twitter: twitter.com/BradCochi