John Theriault
Special to

Empire surprises Valley Christian to win the 3A state championship

May 12, 2024 by John Theriault, AZPreps365

3A softball state champ Empire (photo courtesy of Ashley Trathen)

Most of the time, parents lament about their kids growing up too fast. A lot is missed.

The same cannot be said for coaches.

With young teams, the growing pains that often come along with youth, namely many mistakes and mental lapses, cannot be corrected soon enough.

But experience soon replaces much of that.

Such was the case for Tucson Empire coach Shannon Woolridge this season. The longtime Ravens’ mentor knew his team had grown up much from last season’s disappointing finish, when they lost in the 3A state championship game to Tucson cross-town rival Sabino 5-2.

So, when the seventh seeded Ravens took on vaunted No. 1 Chandler Valley Christian in Saturday night’s 3A title clash, Woolridge was sure his team would power through any potential miscues and not let the mistakes of the past spoil a chance at a third state championship for the school.

He was right.

Led by the rock steady arm of junior Kendall Freidinger, and a super-charged offense keyed by senior Callie Drawbaugh, the Ravens (26-7) were able to do what only two other teams did all season: defeat the Trojans (27-3) in a convincing 10-6 fashion.

More impressive, Empire’s 10 runs were only the fifth time all season an opponent scored more than two runs off Trojans’ pitching. That covered a span of 30 games.

“This is how it’s been for the last 17 games. We hit a tough spot in the middle of the year and have been very hot since. The girls just felt like they could hit anyone from that point on and they have proven that,” Woolridge said.

The rough spot was a slide that saw Empire lose five in a row and six of seven before winning their final 17 games in absolute dominating style. Over that stretch, the Ravens outscored their opponents 214-13, including 12 shutouts.

Nearly half of those 13 runs were put up by the usually dominating Trojans’ offense.

After an Eva Peace 2-run homer for Empire in the top of the fifth inning, the Ravens had a 4-0 lead. But a matching 2-run homer off the bat of Trojans’ shortstop Kat Hanson cut that lead in half in the bottom of the frame in what was a pitcher’s duel at that point.

But Freidlinger got stingier, and Drawbaugh’s hot bat got contagious, and the wheels fell off for the No. 1 seed in the top of the sixth.

Centerfielder Gabrianna Brooks and Drawbaugh started the visitor’s sixth with back-to-back singles. Moments later, Angie Dehler smoked a 2-run double to the right field fence, making it 6-2.

Dehler would score on a wild pitch ahead of an RBI double by Morgan Faunce, lifting Empire to what would be an insurmountable 8-2 lead.

Valley Christian made a valiant comeback try in the bottom of the seventh, plating four runs on six hits, but it left them a bit short.

"The way we finished last year, we came into the season saying that wasn’t going to happen again,” said Drawbaugh, who finished the night 4-for-5 with two runs and two RBI to power a 14-hit attack.

And while the hitting certainly keyed the upset, the pitching of Freidlinger was absolutely the glue to the whole masterpiece for the Ravens.

The junior went the distance and finished with 10 strikeouts, allowing just one walk along the way.

“I just always try and pretend it’s the top of the first inning with a new batter each time regardless of what happens. When (Hanson) hit the homer, I just said in my head, ‘Good job for her, now I have to get the next hitter,’” Freidlinger explained.

For Valley Christian coach Michael Fraley, the dominance by Freidlinger in the circle came as no surprise.

“She’s a heckuva pitcher. She just hits her spots. There is a reason she is going to play on Fridays and Saturdays (college softball). She’s that good,” Fraley said.