When Laura Espinoza-Watson comes to the conclusion her softball teams need something different, a tweak or twist to propel the roster forward, she could be like most coaches and scan the horizon for options.
Surely, there are talented athletes in and around Tucson who would crave the chance to work side-by-side with Espinoza-Watson, founder of the AZ ThunderCats, who was an all-American at Arizona and a feared force of nature in NCAA softball during the mid-1990s.
But rather than reach for her phone, or scheme with assistants to identify the best roster to raid, Espinoza-Watson inevitably will be found sitting down with her own players. Those meetings end with the ThunderCats agreeing that the best solutions are already in motion, and the best players to bring those solutions to life reside in their dugout.
Anyone who saw Espinoza-Watson hit, how she stood in the batter’s box with balance and discipline to attack her pitch, knows she’s not the fidgety type – and she’ll stick with her players in the same fashion, trusting the process and believing good results will come over time.
“We’re not cut-throat. I’ve never picked up the phone and called to get a kid off another team, but I’ve had that done to me,” said Espinoza-Watson, who started the club in 2008 when her 7-year-old daughter was ready to play and then suited up for that initial ThunderCats 10u team. “I use what I have, and I get the most out of my kids. I’ve had kids want to try out and are better than the kids I have in those positions, but I make it known my loyalty is to the (established) kid.
I had to work for the things I got; a lot of the kids I coach don’t have money. I’m competitive with what I’ve got. Instead of replacing them with a better athlete, I get every ounce of what I can out of that kid, and I run with it.”
In the early years, the ThunderCats were coached from 10u through 18u by her former Wildcats teammates; eventually, they left town for other opportunities, and Espinoza-Watson relied on family members to staff the program. Her name carried a lot of impact, as she sits third in NCAA softball history in RBI (315) and tied for fourth in home runs (85) – in her senior year with Arizona, she hit 37 homers and drove in 132 runs.
And when the club grew to include two teams in Phoenix and one in El Paso, Texas, the determination for that family feel was a priority.
“These people were special to me; for me it was if there’s anybody who loves the game I love and can respect it and treasure it, I want them to be ThunderCats,” she said. “I can’t be any happier for what we do with kids in this community. I’ve sat back and thought about bigger teams elsewhere that have multiple coaches on the staff, sometimes seven coaches, with personal instructors … I am all my girls have. It’s not really by choice; that’s just the way it is in this small town. We don’t have people jumping in; it takes time, and everyone wants to get paid. I’m not about that – I’m about giving back to the kids in the community, and that’s where I get my motivation from.”
With dozens of other fastpitch programs in the nation characterized by players jumping from club to club, and coaches forming rosters with a by-any-means-necessary philosophy, there’s a refreshing quality to how the ThunderCats do business.
“We really don’t recruit; people tend to come to us. We focus not on where they are at now, but where they can be down the road,” said Gina Espinoza, the club’s general manager and coach on the 16u and 18u Tucson teams. “If you see a player with the athletic ability and the drive, we invest in that player. Most kids on our older rosters have been with us five years and up. We are loyal to them, and they give that back to us. We’ve turned away a lot of players.
“Another important thing we do is, whether it’s a championship game, pool game, bracket game, we make sure players get in the game. It could put the game on the line, but every player gets in. That’s where we stand – it’s not about the wins and losses. They do support each other. We have three good shortstops who rotate positions – they are happy to support each other, and they know their role. And like at exposure tournaments, one kid will take a back seat because she knows the younger ones need to be seen. Or the younger ones will know a player needs reps, and they work it out.”
“When you play a tournament against the top teams in the country, they have a ton of kids to choose from, and they’re just picking the best of the best at tryouts,” Espinoza-Watson added. “I pride myself that the kids I have with me, I’ve had over the course of seven years. I got to start with them from scratch and seen them evolve as softball players. I take a lot of pride in that.”
One of the players who thrived on the family-first ethos of the ThunderCats is Ann Marie Vargas, one of the above mentioned shortstops who is headed to New Mexico State in the fall and has pressed on in her club days even when it didn’t feel like much fun.
She said at age 10 or 11, the deeper aspirations the ThunderCats had for her were a mystery, but a few years later she understood what the program was trying to do. Sometimes it asked a lot – Vargas would be held accountable for mistakes made by other players – but that was all connected to the themes of leadership and loyalty.
“I knew right away it would be a family-based group, and that was important to me. You go into the sport thinking it’s all about you, and you realize it takes the team to get anything done,” Vargas said. “I remember the first (conflict) I had with Laura – she definitely made me cry. But she’s an upfront honest woman who lays down the law. She rides you real hard, but if you ever need something off the field, she’d be one of the first people I’d call. We take a lot of pride in that family-based organization.
“She takes the time to develop you as a softball player, and a person in general. Also as a student; she gives so much of her time to make sure her kids are ready for the college experience, athletically and academically. It’s huge, in my opinion, that she takes the time to get kids that experience on and off the field.”
“We’ve had kids that came through and didn’t want to stay at first. They were scared of Laura, or it was too much for them,” Espinoza said. “One of our players (Yannira Acuña), who has verballed to ASU, she started at age 10 at catcher and second base — Laura said ‘you’re going to play the outfield,’ and she wanted to quit. Now, she’s a fantastic centerfielder. Laura also turned her around to bat on the left side, and she’s fantastic lefty slapper and hits for power. Stories like that really stick out.”
The ThunderCats are reaching crossroads in the near future – when Espinoza-Watson’s daughter ages out of club ball, she had imagined the time would be right to get out of coaching. If there were enough trusted allies and family members to keep the organization going, so be it, but she thought it was possible the club would come to an end.
Now, that seems less likely. A niece is about to hit the age where she can suit up for 10u softball, and this may provide enough incentive to keep the lights on for years to come. Gina Espinoza, who was volunteered by her own daughter years ago to join the coaching staff, also thought she might hang up the clipboard, but there’s a stubborn desire to keep up the good fight.
“I’ve been telling people for years I’m done. Now I’ve got a niece coming through … our love for the game and ThunderCats will probably keep it going,” Espinoza said. “The rewards of seeing the kids excel and watching them move forward will keep us involved for a long time. That’s my hope, anyway.”
“Getting ready for my last season, it’s exciting,” Vargas added. “It’s also bittersweet, going into this last year with Laura. I know it’ll be fun and we’ll go out with a bang, but the most important thing is I know she’ll get me prepared for college. When it comes to an end, it’ll be a bittersweet thing.”
In the world of club softball, there’s plenty of reason to tip one’s cap to the work done in Southern California, which for decades has produced stellar players and razor-sharp coaching minds that have accelerated the growth of the sport.
When considering the quality of play around the rest of the state, human nature might reach for a quick and careless answer about NorCal softball – the culture of San Francisco and the upper reaches of the Redwoods don’t foster the same competitive environment, some might think. But to overlook a program like Sorcerers Softball is to miss out on the skill set of dozens of players, as well as be unprepared for when the Sorcerers are in the opposite dugout, ready to humble one more squad that didn’t take them seriously.
With the 14u team taking second place at the Triple Crown/USA Nationals in Reno this July, the 18s coming in fifth at the same event, and the 16s taking third at the Independence Day Tournament in Boulder, CO., there’s plenty of fresh evidence that at high-profile tournaments, the Sorcerers have the depth and desire to make deep runs in the bracket. Some of that determination can be tracked to not wanting SoCal softball to be the last and only word.
“That’s certainly an ongoing deal. We’re always competing against them – the talent and coaching is amazing, and they draw players like crazy,” said Pete Aguayo, coach of the 18u squad that has all but one player signed to play college softball (and the one remaining doesn’t graduate until 2017). “We’re always trying to hold onto our players. But we get a fair amount of respect from those people. During showcase events, we seem to be put in with those teams, and we are always measuring ourselves by them.”
The Sorcerers were founded by the late, beloved Phil Mumma, who put a distinguished playing and coaching career topping 40 years into his vision for an academy in the late 1990s, in partnership with pitching instructor Delmar Himango. Before his untimely passing in September of 2013, the Sorcerers put hundreds of players into the college ranks at every level and through to the Olympic Games – the most well-known athlete is arguably Michelle Gascoigne, who pitched Oklahoma to the 2013 NCAA title and currently plays in the National Pro Fastpitch League with the Chicago Bandits.
From Aguayo’s view, when Mumma guided his 18’s to consecutive ASA National Championships in 2002-03, the Sorcerers had genuinely arrived. Those marked the first-ever national titles by a Bay-area team, and also the first time a program had repeat champions in decades. The 18s also won the ASA Gold Nationals in 2009 and was seventh in the 2013 PGF Nationals. This by-the-bootstraps construction of the club created a sense of fierce loyalty to Mumma, and in fact, current Sorcerers president Bill Schroll promised Mumma just before his death that Schroll would do everything in his power to sustain the Sorcerers’ name.
Fast forward to 2015, the talent of the Sorcerers 18s is eye-catching and an honor to Mumma’s design – if you took away the one player from that age category on the roster, the squad could have played as 16s this season.
“I don’t want to burst the bubble too early, but this (18’s) team has the potential to do something special over the next couple of years, if we can keep the young squad together and keep developing,” Aguayo said. “Believe me, we’re working hard on that.”
“One thing we are very focused on is being a pure program. We are not selling out and putting teams A through D in multiple cities – we have three teams in NorCal only,” said Gary Gascoigne, head coach of the 14u Sorcerers. “We want to be elite, premier, and not watered down.
“The Sorcerers have always had some of the best pitching in NorCal, no two ways about it. I give a lot of credit to Rich Balswick, a real pitching guru who has trained a lot of kids who went on to play D-I. And I am probably (a factor) with the Sorcerers; it looks like I’ve got 16 pitchers ready to come to tryouts for my team. One of the things I pride myself in is preparing kids to pitch instead of throw, and become prepared to excel at the next level.”
When it comes to shining a light on the philosophies and priorities that define Sorcerers softball, the one thing that comes into view first is the level of discipline expected by Aguayo, Gascoigne and 16u coaches Mike and Jenny Williams. This is not a destination for the faint of heart, or stamina.
“It was my first year, so it was nerve-wracking getting ready to play for them. But they really work on getting you ready for the next level and focus on the little skills,” said Lindsay Rood, one of the most accomplished Sorcerers players in program history, who is headed to Cal this autumn on a softball scholarship (and has been asked to play soccer for the Bears as well). “The coaches’ passion and attitude toward softball also inspired us; their dedication rubbed off on us.
“It was a great environment to be in. It was a little hard at first to get used to the effort they expected from us, but through that, you saw what it takes to be successful. We love playing the SoCal teams; it’s always a great fight, and we love how competitive it was. It’s even fun rooting for other NorCal teams when they play SoCal.”
“It’s run professionally and set up to give young players a chance to learn and succeed. One thing travel ball lacks these days is the teaching aspect and getting players prepared for college; and when it’s just about recruiting and being seen, you lose sight of that,” said Michelle Gascoigne, Gary’s daughter. “Phil was my coach, and I have a teammate on the Bandits who played for him as well. We tell stories and are really grateful we played for someone who was hard on us. You’re not going to get away with not hustling; it’s important to play where they will hold you to a high standard.”
This aspect of the Sorcerers is not likely to fade in importance in the years ahead. Coaches in multiple sports these days talk about the flightiness of young athletes, and how their flawed work ethic (often with parental enabling) makes it tough to build a devoted, dedicated roster.
You’ll find a throwback way of thinking with Aguayo and the rest of the staff, where success on the field and even later in life grows its roots on discipline, focus, consequences and team.
“From my perspective, I think it really starts with the parents. In a day and age where everyone thinks they are entitled to have something without really working for it … I’m getting ready to transition my team after the summer, and there are some kids I won’t be able to keep,” Aguayo said. “I could, but I’m not going to because I want to move with a grittier, more tenacious group when they practice and play. And when I found those (right) players, I find the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“You can see it in how the kid reflects a work ethic, their standards, their grades, how they practice and work out on their own time. It has to do with their family. People say, oh aren’t you too hard on your kids, that and that. But these are the people who become successful. You learn to compete, get along with people to attain the same goals. That’s what we are doing right here. And I feel fortunate to have families who get it.”
The challenges of running a top-flight program are always there, and always evolving. At the lower levels, people start new teams because of frustrations with their current squad – watering down the talent in town – and there’s the constant concern with expenses and what families have to juggle to afford top-flight instruction.
“But our parents expect us to put their kids in front of the same competition they’ll face in the SEC or the Pac-12,” Aguayo added. “And that’s why they’re here. They want to face that.”