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.”