Sophia Griffith had a perfect response when asked about her Buena High softball team making the Class 5A state tournament, a response her teammates would only agree with.
How are the Colts reacting after learning they will host Peoria Centennial in the first round Saturday?
“Pumped!” Griffith said.
Buena, 13-3, will be making its first state tournament appearance since 2016. At No. 10 in the state rankings earlier in the week, the team moved to No. 8 — the top eight-ranked teams in the 16-team tourney host first-round games — after wins over Douglas and Tucson Pueblo Magnet.
The Colts have a solid offense and good pitching, anchored by junior Griffith, who will start against No. 9 Centennial, 14-6.
Griffith has made great strides this season, finishing with 10 victories. She ranks third in strikeouts in 5A with 94.
It’s not just softball that has her attention. Griffith is on the fast track academically. She is about to finish with enough credits to graduate and will be playing at Pima Community College next season, working toward a degree in early childhood education.
Coach Mike Tomooka is glad she’s part of the team. After playing as a freshman, her sophomore season was canceled by COVID, and she had to make up some ground this season.
“The mental part has really matured,” he says about Griffith. “I would think, ‘she could be really, really phenominal her senior year.’ But she’s got enough credits. She did that online schooling and that shows she’s very determined.
“That in itself shows a lot of ambition and the ability to get it done and go to the next level. I think she has a good vision of what she wants to do for herself as a person, and that’s nice.”
Griffith has a grasp of the mental, physical and emotional aspects of the game. Assistant coach Shannel Blackshear, who starred for the Colts and Tomooka and played at Wisconsin, has been a mentor.
On the mental side:
“She helped me a lot because she always knows how to calm me down and helps me out in the tough situations,” Griffith says about Blackshear. “She knows what we’re going through, she’s been there.”
That helps Griffith deal with tough situations.
“I rely on my mental ability, because when I’m mentally there I’m good enough that it all just flows,” she says. “But when I’m not mentally there, that’s when I start to struggle and that’s when they catch on.
“You know, I just try to hammer the strike zone and keep it low, and then rely on my defense to help me out when I get into tough situations.”
On the physical side:
Blackshear and other coaches stress simplification.
“Like (Blackshear) has told them, it doesn’t matter if you know how to throw 15 pitches because you’re really not going to be that good in all 15, that’s just reality,” Tomooka says. “You need to have four or so that you can really control or master and use them in the correct moment.”
Griffith believes she has four or five pitches that work for her, and says her curveball is her best pitch, which she can get to break four or five inches.
“It was difficult to learn it, but once I got the hang of it I really enjoyed throwing it because the batters usually chase it,” she says.
On the emotional side:
Getting ready for a game means different things to different players. For Griffith, it means trying to chill. Helping with that is Laura Scott-Winhold, who has been her catcher for six or seven years. They get together before a game.
“I just try to relax, because my catcher is one of my best friends,” Griffith says. “Not make it too big, and then when it comes to game time we’re usually serious, but we’re relaxed and we work well together.”
They chat and tell jokes. So, who tells the best jokes?
“That’s a good one!” she says. “I would have to say I’m the better joke teller.”
Being relaxed — and motivated — will be a must against Centennial. The Coyotes feature double-threat senior Meghan Golden. She leads 5A with 12 home runs and has knocked in 31 runs. On the mound, she leads the conference with 184 strikeouts, and like Griffith, has won 10 games.
The Buena junior knows what she and her teammates have to do.
“Our mindset will probably be just work on the rise ball,” Griffith says. “We know the Centennial pitcher has a good rise ball. Making sure our swings are mechanically good, doing our fundamentals.
“And having fun in the game.”