There weren’t many people outside of the Cougarettes’ own locker room who would’ve predicted a second consecutive trip to the state tournament.
In fact, even some of Canyon’s more experienced players had their doubts at first.
“To be honest, at the beginning of the year I didn’t think we’d make it this far,” junior outfielder Mia Macchia said. “But the team has gotten really close, so that’s helped us out.”
The Cougarettes entered the 2019 campaign as the reigning Region IV-6A champions and the defending state runners-up after falling 5-3 to Humble Atascocita in the 2018 state championship game in Austin. As devastating as a loss like that could have been going forward, senior pitcher Aliyah Pritchett said she was able to move past the setback without dwelling on it too much.
“It was kind of instant to me,” Pritchett said. “We lost. We did that to ourselves, and we just had to start working and get back there because we had a lot to prove.”
Senior shortstop Sydney Belvin echoed the sentiment, saying there was only one direction left for Canyon to go.
“We can’t go back, so I think moving forward and knowing that we could get better was the best thing,” Belvin said.
Buoyed by Pritchett, Belvin, Macchia, Hunter Vestal and Isabel Armendariz — the five holdovers remaining from last year’s squad — the Cougarettes successfully defended their Region IV-6A crown last week in a winner-take-all contest against Austin High in Buda. Canyon shut out the Maroons 2-0 to advance to today’s state semifinal contest at Red and Charline McCombs Field in Austin.
It’s been an unfamiliar underdog role for the Cougarettes thus far, as many pundits predicted that another team from the San Antonio area would likely rise to the top in 2019 after graduation hit Canyon hard last spring. Thankfully, head coach Kevin Randle still had a handful of experienced and highly-talented performers to rely on in the interim.
“Just the experience that they’ve got and their approach to the game and their approach to practices has kind of really rubbed off on the young kids — not just the kids on varsity, but the JV and the program as a whole, because they’ve got that drive, they’ve got knowledge of the game and awareness of situations and how big they are,” Randle said. “Some of the young ones, as we were going through playoffs, maybe didn’t realize the significance or importance of where we were and what we were doing, where the older ones did and they’ve been able to drive that message home throughout this playoff run.”
With a pair of freshmen and two sophomores also a part of the Cougarettes’ starting lineup, there were bound to be some growing pains as a new-look Canyon team prepared to take on a difficult District 26-6A schedule. However, some of those concerns went out the window when the Cougarettes opened league play by invoking the 10-run rule in a runaway victory over crosstown rival New Braunfels.
“We were down in the first inning,” Belvin, a McNeese State signee, said. “We came back and scored 10 runs and I think that’s when we really knew that we had some potential.”
Canyon continued its march toward the district championship — the program’s third in a row — as the players gelled alongside their new teammates. By the time the Cougarettes were ready to enter the postseason, the juniors and seniors were no longer able to ignore the possibility of another serious run.
“I think it’s been a slow evolution,” Vestal, a junior first baseman, said. “At the beginning, you don’t really see how it’s coming together, but once we got to that point where we won district it was like, ‘Wow, this team can really do some great stuff together.’”
Canyon has already eliminated playoff foes Kyle Lehman, San Antonio MacArthur, Buda Hays, Harlingen South and Austin High, and Randle’s club is now ready to battle Klein Collins in the state semifinals today.
Pritchett, a Baylor signee, said the Cougarettes remain more focused on themselves than any potential opponent.
“We’ve done a really good job of not paying attention to who we’re playing,” Pritchett said. “We’ve continued to work the way we normally work, and if we need to work harder on certain things, we’re working harder.”
The contest between Canyon (36-7) and Klein Collins (37-2) is set for 3 p.m. at McCombs Field. The winner advances to face either Katy (35-2) or Keller (35-3-1) in Saturday’s 6A state title game at 6 p.m.
No matter the outcome, it’s already been a very rewarding season for the Cougarettes.
“We’re right back where we ended last year,” Pritchett said. “That taught me you can start low, but it’s where you finish and how much work you put in.”