New approach to season hits jackpot for Dragons
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Until a Southwest team advances one game further into the postseason, Team 22 will be the standard by which future softball squads are judged.
The Dragons’ large, vociferous community of supporters likely will see to that.
Team 22, in case you’re wondering, is the name that stuck with this year’s Southwest Class 5A state semifinalists, whose season ended last Friday with a 12-2 loss to eventual runner-up The Woodlands at McCombs Park in Austin. The significance extends beyond the mere fact that it was the school’s 22nd softball team. Just as its achievements surpassed those of its predecessors.
The concept that essentially each team was as unique as each snowflake was borrowed from University of Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, whom Dragons coach Sandy Hernandez heard at a softball clinic. It was intended to help inspire Hernandez’s senior-laden team to greatness.
“Every year is a new team, different than any team in the past,” the sixth-year Southwest coach explained. “I knew this team would be different, with five seniors. At tryouts, I gave each of them an acceptance letter that said ‘Welcome to Team 22.
“I wanted them to know that this year’s team would be different, that I wanted them to be the team they knew how to be and the best team they could be.”
The Team 22 label stuck.
“When the season got going and we were so successful,” Hernandez said, “everybody in the community got into it.”
The message behind the Team 22 concept also stuck a chord with her team.
“Every season that was cut short, it was very frustrating,” Southwest senior Gabby Flores said, “but every year we got knocked down was another reminder that we deserved more. That we needed to get (to state) and we needed to find a way to get there.”
As the season progressed, the District 28-5A champions exuded increased confidence and mental toughness. They also saw their supporting crowd grow in size.
After helping to set a stadium attendance record at St. Mary’s University in the Region IV finale, Dragons fans comprised an estimated two-thirds of the announced crowd of 1,300 Friday on the University of Texas campus. Some held “Team 22” signs.
“It was great,” said Southwest senior catcher Gabby Flores, who collected two hits. “It felt like it wasn’t real, because everyone on the team had dreamed about making it that far. It was kind of like a dream come true.
“Our community support is so great. They’re behind us no matter what. We’re very blessed for all of that.”
Southwest’s first state-tournament softball team fell behind The Woodlands early and couldn’t manufacture runs in bunches as it had throughout the season. Errors also proved an unexpected obstacle. Southwest committed five which fed Highlanders rallies.
The Dragons faced a 7-0 deficit after two innings and never were closer than 8-2 afterward.
“The whole season was a learning experience,” Flores said. “The girls have grown so much. We’ve grown so much as a team. This game, didn’t show how good w e really are. You’re not going to show that in every game. That’s the way things are.
“But I believe in everything my teammates can do.”
Those were the sort of thoughts that ran through Flores’ mind as she was leaving McCombs Field Friday. She reflected on the journey she and her fellow seniors had undertaken, which included four district titles and postseason runs.
“It has really taught me about leadership,” Flores said. “My team is just amazing. The support is great. I believe in them so much and they believe in me so much. It was great to walk out of there, even if we didn’t win.”
Pitcher-first baseman Kamerie Vidales, center fielder Liz Phillips, third baseman Kayla Arguello, Flores and Sanchez were fourth-year varsity players who’ll be lost to graduation. Phillips and Vidales were starters throughout their Dragons careers.
Arguello will play softball next year at Hill College, a two-year school in Hillsboro. Sanchez will continue her career at Our Lady of the Lake. Phillips and Vidales also plan to play softball at the next level, but haven’t chosen their schools yet. Flores will concentrate on academics at the University of Texas-San Antonio and hopes to eventually become a veterinarian.
“This group of girls, it’s been an honor for a coach to work with them,” Hernandez said. “All five of them came and worked hard daily. They saw how to fail and how to succeed. The best compliment I can give them is how much they’ve matured in four years.
“They made it their goal to go to the top of the mountain, and they did it. It’s going to be hard to fill those shoes.”
Southwest will return five starters who’ll form the nucleus of Team 23.
Caitlin Terrazas will return for her third year as a starting pitcher and fellow sophomore Amanda Cerda, who pitched well against San Marcos in the regional final series, should step into Vidales’ pitching role. Miranda Gonzales, the designated hitter most of the season, will inherit Flores’ catching duties, after showing herself to be a capable replacement against San Marcos.
The senior double-play combination of Kristal Salinas at shortstop and Yanira Fernandez at second base will be a team strength. Right fielder Faith Aguilar is likely to be joined by sophomores Megan Hernandez in left field, who gained experience in the semifinals, and Isabel Soto in center.
When the team reconvenes next spring, it will need to identify the new first baseman and designated hitter.
The pieces seem to be in place for the Dragons to pursue a share of their sixth-consecutive district title, either outright as in 2014 or shared, although the realigned 28-6A promises to be strong from top to bottom. The challenge will be for a handful of players to shine in larger roles as they aim to minimize the loss of on-field production from Southwest’s most-accomplished senior class to date.
“I think Team 22 is going to be one of the best teams ever to come out of Southwest,” Hernandez said. “Next year’s team will have a different style of play. They won’t all be power hitters coming back. We’re going to have to get players on base and move them up.
“They’re going to have to fill in. They’re never going to replace those five seniors.”
Team 23 already may have the fuel for a successful 2015 season. Hernandez suggested that the loss to the The Woodlands might do for next year’s team what a 2011 loss to San Benito did for the graduating seniors, in terms of motivation and goal-setting.
“I think that group learned a lot from that loss,” Hernandez said. “Hopefully, this group will learn a lot from losing (the game Friday) and have the itch to return. Hopefully, this gets them going.”