The softball postseason is right around the corner and the Erie Tigers are back in the mix again as the fifth overall seed in Class 3A and the host of the Region 3 tournament on Saturday. The Tigers won 11 state titles in 13 seasons to open the new millennium under Bob Bledsoe, so their presence in the playoffs is no surprise.
As the Erie prepares to embark on another postseason run, I caught up with head coach Harold Simmons on Wednesday to get a feel for how the Tigers are feeling about their season to date and their state tournament potential.
Question: So you guys finished the regular season with a 14-5 record and won the highly-competitive Tri-Valley League title. You’re hosting a regional tournament yet again and figure to be one of a few teams with the potential to challenge Valor Christian for the Class 4A state title. Could you please give me your thoughts on Erie’s season so far?
Simmons: The injury to Maddie Leach kind of threw everything off there for a minute. We started 5-0 and when we went into the Erie Tournament of Champions, we were locked into a good game with Legend when Maddie got hurt. Losing her for the season was a huge blow and we went into a stretch where we went 0-4 for a while. But we were able to rebound and we went something like 9-1 after that.
Losing your pitcher is hard for any team to go through but Megan Loveland has done a great job stepping up into that role for us and she’s had like a 1.70 ERA in league play. We’ve also played really good defense all year and that’s helped a lot. We have seven seniors and they’ve really stepped up to lead the team through everything we’ve gone through.
When the regional brackets were released on Monday, seven out of the eight Tri-Valley teams had finished top 30 in the final RPI standings and qualified for the playofss. That’s a little ridiculous. Can you talk about the strength of your conference and how you think that happened?
I think the biggest key is that we’ve had really good success as a conference when we play out of conference. Our seventh team that got in – Roosevelt – they were 4-1 playing outside of our conference. When your seventh team is winning games like that outside of your conference, it speaks to the strength and the depth of your league. Even Skyline, the team that didn’t make it in, played a couple games outside of our conference when they run-ruled teams.
And when your top teams are all playing each other, that really helps your RPI score and that’s a big deal these days. When we’re all playing tough schedules, it helps a lot. I mean, there’s a good chance we’ll play Holy Family in the regional finals this weekend, and they’ve already beaten us twice. So I think that year-in and year-out, it’s been the best conference in the state.
You have coached softball at Erie for almost three years now. But you have coached the Tigers baseball team for nearly a decade. How has preparing a softball team for the postseason been different than how you would approach things during the baseball season?
You know, it really isn’t any different. I love it, first of all. I love both. Coaching both has been even better than I could have imagined and doing both gives you insight from one that makes you better at the other. With the girls, winning a state championship is the goal every season. That’s not to say that winning a state championship isn’t the goal for every program in every season at our school, but the softball team has set that standard here.
I think maybe the field is a little bit deeper in baseball and it’s a bit tougher because only one team gets out of regionals and they pair it right down to eight teams going to state. It’s a little bit of a different game in softball when two teams get out of regionals and you get into a 16-team tournament at state and its single elimination. So while it’s a bit easier to get there, you have to be on your game because it’s not double-elimination like baseball and there’s no way to play your way back.
Few programs would be able to move on so seamlessly after graduating a bedrock type player like Rio Sanchez. Can you speak to the strength of your program and its ability to reload rather than rebuild? And could you pick a player, maybe one who hasn’t garnered as much acclaim as some others, who has been a major reason for this year’s success?
Rio is obviously a Colorado all-time great and we could just put her in the circle and watch her go. Maddie Leach got us started off on the right foot and it’s taken a number of girls to fill in for that loss. It’s a testament to the program that Bob Bledsoe built, and our school has gotten a little bit bigger and our lower levels have been really successful for a long time.
We returned an all-state player in Hannah Hackney, and we’ve got Elise Capra and Kara Kovets. Those are all great players. Kat Sackett and Maddie Vaughan are our two sophomores who have potential to be D-I players. But when you get into the bottom of our lineup, we have our three seniors Jade Phillips, Katie Huonder and Morgan Weber, who have been great. Morgan in particular, has moved over to shortstop and she’s maybe had one of the all-time great defensive seasons in Erie history. Those three are really the backbone of our team.
I hate to bring up last year’s playoffs, and the infamous “foul homer” that would have given you guys the lead in last year’s title game, but I’m going to. You guys came about as close as a team can come to winning a state title last season but lost 3-1 to three-time defending champion Valor Christian. With that in mind, how are you approaching this year’s postseason?
Our approach really hasn’t changed. We’ve talked from the beginning of the year that our goal is to win a state championship. To get there, that goes through Valor. We’ve played a lot of really good teams along the way and we’re going to play some more. But we’re not sugar-coating it, and our goal is to beat Valor and win a state championship, knowing darn good and well that we might get sent home before we even see them.
The biggest key for us is just knowing that they’re the only team that has knocked us out of the playoffs the last four years, it has just come at different times. But we had no doubt, even when we were losing to them in the Final Four, that it’s been us and Valor playing for a state championship. They’re a great team but we know that we’re as good as them and we’re ready to go out there and do our best to prove it.