Tag Archives: teen athletes

Homegrown talent, hometown edge: ASU Softball’s local lineup

Left to right): Breanna Kaye (Mountain Ridge H.S.), Dallas Escobedo (St. Mary’s H.S.), Talor Haro (Highland H.S.), Mackenzie Popescue (Chaparral H.S.), Sam Parlich (Basha H.S.), Katelyn Boyd (Horizon H.S.), Annie Lockwood (Paradise Valley H.S.)

By Robert T. Balint

When the Arizona State softball team opens the Women’s College World Series this Thursday at 4 p.m. against the University of Oklahoma, it will have something that none of the seven other teams in the tournament have — 14 of its 25 players are from 12 local high schools.

“Most of us are from Arizona, we’ve all been playing with and against each other for years,” said Mackenzie Popescue, one of the Sun Devil’s resident aces on the mound. A Chaparral grad who captained the Firebirds as a senior for the 2009 season, Popescue has a 13-3 record with a 2.22 earned run average. She got offers from big names like Texas, Alabama and UCLA, but she decided to stay close to home. “I’m a mama’s girl,” she said. “I always wanted to stay in state.”

Dallas Escobedo, a freshman phenom with a 32-3 season record, lives a half-hour away from campus and wouldn’t have it any other way. “I didn’t want to leave home, the hurler said. What’s more, “My family and friends come and watch whenever they want.” The two pitchers know each other well, having dueled many times, with almost every game going into extra innings.

Katelyn Boyd, a junior from Phoenix Horizon High and a top three finalist for the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year Award, lives at home and has connections with more than a few of her teammates from before Arizona State. “Talor [Haro]’s been my best friend since I was 14, and I’ve known Annie [Lockwood] growing up in high school, and I played with and against Dallas,” Boyd said.

Last Thursday, Boyd, Escobedo and Popescue took some time off from preparing for their Super Regional games against Texas A&M, which they later won 3-2 and 4-2, to sit down to talk about their transition from their high school teams to playing for Arizona State, and give some advice on those who would follow in their footsteps.

Tips for Ballplayers

  • College programs offer sports camps for high school athletes, which are a great way to get recognized. “I went to a bunch of Arizona State camps,” Popescue said. “I got to meet the coaches and the girls, and I fell in love with them.” As college coaches are not allowed to approach high school athletes unless the athletes visit the college campus, camps provide an opportunity to get a feel for the program. “You get to sit down and talk to the coaches,” Popescue said, “and get to know them, how they coach and how they deal with their players.”
  • Rise to the challenge. Boyd attended Horizon High School, but also played club ball, which is where she got noticed.  “How we worked on our club team—conditioning was hard—the goal was to get us set for college,” Boyd said. The increased intensity that her club team brought made the transition from high school to college ball easier. Also, Boyd suggests that girls play at the highest level that their skills can allow, no matter the age group. I feel like if girls can play up—if you’re good enough at 14 to play at 18 level, do it,” the shortstop says. “You can only get better by beating better players, tougher competition.”
  • Hit the books.  Escobedo attended St. Mary’s High School in Phoenix, and that helped prepare her for college life. “St. Mary’s has strong academics—our classes were tough,” Escobedo said. The life of a college athlete is a harried one—classes, practice, homework, team meetings, etc. take up large chunks of time. Rising softball players have to know how to keep everything in balance. “It was private school so that prepared me, and made me more responsible,” Escobedo said. “That made me grow up quicker.”

Advice to Parents

  • Push your daughter, but not too much. “There were times I wanted to give up, and take it easy,” Popescue said about her days playing ball before ASU. “To get to this level, you can’t.” The desire has to come from the athlete. “You can’t make your daughter work hard,” Boyd said, “It has to just come around.” Says Popescue: “It comes down to hard work and pushing your kid. I mean, not to the point that they’re going to hate softball, but to the point that you’re working hard.”
  • Be engaged. “My dad always made sure that I got enough rest and sleep, and that I ate right,” Escobedo said. Richard Escobedo would go over with his daughter her performances on the mound and at the plate, and prescribed advice and extra pitching in the backyard. “He pushed me so much that I hated it, but I’m thankful because I wouldn’t be here [without it],” Escobedo said. Her mom, Jodi Gosch, played the “good cop,” talking Dallas through bad practices and games, always ready with a shoulder on which to cry. “She would be on my side, she’s happy for me all the time,” Escobedo said.
  • Find the right program. Boyd described her “checklist,” a list of what she was looking for in a college team. For her, ASU fit the bill—close to home, nice weather, etc. Aspiring players should make checklists of their own, so that they know what they’re looking for in a team. Find “the right coach, the right program,” Boyd said, and that fit depends on the individual.

Postscript — On June 2, Katelyn Boyd and Dallas Escobedo, along with their ASU teammate Kaylyn Castillo, were named first team All-Americans by the National Fastpitch Coaches Association.  Another local girl named to the first team All-American team was Ashley Hansen, a junior shortstop at Stanford University.  Hansen is a graduate of Corona del Sol High School in Tempe.

Postscript II — On June 7, ASU won the Women’s College World Series by defeating the University of Florida 7-2.  Dallas Ecobedo was named the Most Outstanding Player of the World Series along with Florida’s Michelle Moultrie.


Track meet tension — and joy

Saguaro's Katie Drake (center) takes the baton from teammate Katie Alhadeff for the anchor leg of the 4x100 relay at Friday's Scottsdale City track meet. The team from Chaparral (left) is about to make the exchange while a runner from Desert Mountain (right) awaits her teammate.

Watching a high school track meet in the early evening this time of year is a relaxing and stress-free activity — unless your child is competing in the meet.  On Friday night, I went over to Chaparral High School to watch the Scottsdale City Track Meet, which is held annually for the five Scottsdale Unified School District Schools — Arcadia, Chaparral, Coronado, Desert Mountain and Saguaro.

In particular, I wanted to see Saguaro’s Katie Drake run the 100-, 200- and 400- meter races and the 4×100 relay. Katie is the daughter of Raising Arizona Kids Senior Account Executive Susie Drake and her husband, Scott.

Katie, now a junior, has been running since she was 7 years old.  “I started running because my mom thought I would like it,” Katie said Friday, “and then I grew to love it.”

Katie’s parents made their best effort to remain calm during the meet, but whenever Katie was on the track that facade fell away. There were emotional ups and downs as Katie finished second in the 100 meters, ran the winning anchor leg in the 4×100 relay (after overcoming a difficult baton exchange) and then ran out of gas in the 400 meters, where she had the lead in the last 100 meters but finished fourth.

Katie had plenty of gas left for her last race, however, as she finished first with a time of 27:39. As Katie crossed the finished line, Susie thrust her arms in the air with joy and quickly walked down the stands to congratulate her daughter.

After the last race, I asked Katie what it was like to run four races in a period of about two hours, including running the 400 meters within 10 minutes of finishing the 4×100 relay. “It was horrible!” Katie said while beaming and holding her first place medal. As you can see from the photo I took a moment later, it couldn’t have been too bad.

Katie Drake flanked by her parents, Susie and Scott, after winning the 200 meters .

As I started to leave the meet, I came upon Mary K. Reinhart, who was there to watch her daughter Emily, a Chaparral sophomore, compete in the last event of the evening: the girls’ pole vault. A year ago, Mary K. wrote in this blog about watching Emily try a new sport as a freshman.

“Emily is still working on getting over the bar in competition,” Mary K. wrote at that time. As we waited for the pole vault to begin, Mary K. wondered aloud whether here attendance this evening was “bad luck” for Emily. “Her event is usually the first one of the meet, so I never get to see it because of work,” said Mary K., who is one of the top political reporters in the state at The Arizona Republic.

As everyone in the crowd, and indeed many of the other competitors of the five schools, watched the final event of the evening, Emily proved that her mom’s attendance did not spell doom for her. A lot had happened in the past year. Emily may have been “still working on getting over the bar in competition” a year ago, but on this evening she won the Scottsdale City meet.

“Wow,” said her mom quietly. “Wow.” — Dan Barr

A chance for kids—and parents—to learn about lacrosse

US Lacrosse, the governing body of boys and girls lacrosse, will conduct a free, two-day clinic Nov. 5 and 6 at Arcadia High School in central Phoenix.

The 2010 Fastbreak Initiative Weekend will introduce lacrosse to young male and female players, provide advanced coaching to more experienced players and offer instruction for coaches, officials and parents.

At least four members of the men’s U.S. National team that recently won the world championship in Manchester, England will be on hand, as will Maren Henley, head coach of the ASU women’s lacrosse team, and Don Zimmerman, head coach of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Zimmerman will provide a keynote speech on Friday night at the Arcadia High School auditorium.

“It’s an opportunity to involve all the people in the Arizona lacrosse community—players, coaches, officials and parents,” says Marie Baca, a board member of the Arizona chapter of US Lacrosse and president of the Arizona Youth Lacrosse League. “Parents who attend will see that there are all sorts of opportunities for them to be as involved as they want to be in lacrosse.”

Desert StiX played during halftime.

Saturday, Nov. 6, will feature clinics for players and anyone who is interested in becoming a referee or umpire. Breakout sessions throughout the day will address such topics as concussion awareness, rules and sportsmanship, obtaining non-profit and tax-exempt status for a lacrosse club, advanced coaching strategies and opportunities to play lacrosse in college. All breakout sessions are open to parents, coaches and team administrators.

Free lacrosse sticks will be given to children who attend the clinic who have not played lacrosse before.

Arcadia High School is located at 4703 E. Indian School Rd. in Phoenix. For more information about Arizona lacrosse, check out the websites for the Arizona Youth Lacrosse League , the Arizona Girls Lacrosse Association and AZ Girls Lacrosse or this four minute video shot in 2008 by Vicki Balint of Small Change Productions.

Do you know a comeback kid?

Now a Xavier College Preparatory High School graduate, 2010 Fan Fave winner Tayler Renshaw returned to her alma mater to present a $1,000 check on behalf of PCH Sports Medicine for Young Athletes to make the inaugural donation for the $1.5 million new sports field.

Do you know a young athlete who was forced to sit on the sidelines because of an injury, illness, or physical limitation? Someone who had to go to physical therapy or treatment while teammates were competing and having fun?

The PCH Sports Medicine Program Comeback Student Athlete of the Year Awards Program is a chance to reward that hard work and dedication to get back in the game.

Nominations are being sought for the 2nd annual Comeback Student Athlete of the Year Awards Program, which recognizes outstanding young athletes who have returned to athletic competition after receiving treatment for an injury, illness, or physical limitation.

Throughout the school year, contest nominees will have the chance of being chosen as the PCH Sports Medicine Comeback Student Athlete of the Week and highlighted on KPNX Channel 12’s Friday Night Fever or 12News Saturday Today. In April 2011, a panel of judges will choose the PCH Sports Medicine Comeback Student Athlete of the Year. An award will also be given for the “Fan Fave” who is selected by online votes. Both winners will be awarded scholarship money to be presented at an end-of-the-year banquet. The winners’ athletic programs will receive cash grants.

Nominations are open to Arizona residents between the ages of 8 and 18 who are currently enrolled in Arizona public, private, charter or home elementary or high schools. Nominees must have participated in organized sports (school, club  or intramurals) and missed part of a season due to injury, illness or physical limitations. You do not have to be a PCH patient to be eligible for the awards program.

Last year, PCH Sports Medicine received more than 100 nominations. From those, 28 comeback student athletes were featured on 12News as weekly winners. Two of those athletes, Brett Butler and Tayler Renshaw, were selected as the PCH Sports Medicine Comeback Student Athlete of the Year and Fan Fave Comeback Student Athlete, respectively.

Brett, who graduated from Corona del Sol High School last June, was diagnosed at the PCH Children’s Neuroscience Institute with a brain tumor that caused debilitating seizures. He underwent surgery to remove the growth, but the procedure resulted in paralysis to the right side of his body. He battled a long road to recovery, but eventually returned to Coronal del Sol’s cross country and varsity baseball teams.

Currently a freshman at Arizona State University, Brett was selected as the Comeback Student Athlete of the Year by a panel of judges.

In August 2008, Tayler began feeling ill and over time her health deteriorated to the point where she could barely run or jump. In February of 2009, her sickness was diagnosed by a team of specialists in the Division of Gastroenterology at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. Tayler found out she has Crohn’s disease.

In order to treat her illness and regain her strength, Tayler had to stop playing soccer for two months and now receives regular infusions every six weeks. Tayler worked extremely hard to get back into top playing condition during the summer before the start of her senior year at Xavier College Preparatory.

Tayler, now a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles, was selected by a public online vote as the Fan Fave Comeback Student Athlete. Over the 19 days of voting, close to 34,000 Fan Fave votes were collected.

Nominations will be accepted through February 27, 2011. To nominate someone you know, visit comebackathlete.azcentral.com.

Fun in the trenches

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“This event is for you guys in the trenches,” shouted Arizona State head strength coach Ben Hilgart to a gathering of about 150 offensive and defensive linemen from 17 high school football teams around the Valley. “You are here to compete and work hard, but also have some fun.”

Most people don’t know this, but the Arizona high school football season started in early May. High school teams are allowed three weeks of non-contact practice without pads before school lets out. June is the month for passing leagues, which are low-contact, no-pads games with seven players on a side. There is no blocking, no tackling and no running plays. These are controlled scrimmages in which each team gets to run 15 or 20 passing plays at a time.

Many Valley high school teams will play four to six passing league games against other schools and also participate in one or more of the passing league tournaments put on by ASU, UofA and NAU. The tournaments attract teams from around the state and allow the coaches for the universities sponsoring the tournament to walk around and evaluate some of the top football talent in the state. At ASU’s tournament on June 9, ASU head football coach Dennis Erickson spent a couple of hours walking around the fields.

Because offensive and defensive linemen are left out of passing league games, the tournaments came up with the idea of “Big Man” competitions, or what ASU strength coach Hilgart calls the “Trench League.” These competitions resemble a mixture of football strength and agility training and a Scottish Highland Games.

At ASU’s Farmington Stadium softball field, the linemen for 17 high school teams participated in five drills: the Farmer’s Walk, a relay race involving dragging 180 pounds of iron chains behind you; a clean-and-press weight lift:, an agility running drill; the Tire Flip, a relay race in which a player flips a 160 pound tire in front of him as he races back and forth; and the Backward Sledge, a relay race in which player run backwards while pulling several plates of dead weight across the field.

The 17 teams accumulated points for each of the five drills, which seeded them for the final competition — the tug of war. Chandler triumphed in the tug of war finals against St. Mary’s, while Liberty High School won the overall competition for the evening, followed by Chandler, Chaparral and Pinnacle.

My father’s high school football coach had a saying that is just as true today as it was 70 years ago, when players wore leather helmets: “If the offensive line does its job, the backs should have to pay admission.”

This fall, their teammates who play the “skill” positions, such as quarterback and running back, will undoubtably get far more attention than these players do. But on a summer night in June, the big guys had some fun.

The next major passing league tournament will be the Fiesta Bowl 7-on-7 Passing Tournament, which will take place next Friday and Saturday, June 25 and 26, at the Brophy Sports Complex at 4800 N. 7th Street.  Spectators are welcome and there is no admission.  — Story and photos by Dan Barr | Video by Robert Balint

The tug of war champion Chandler Wolves.

It’s not a good idea to play one sport all year long

I highly recommend reading Jane Brody’s “Personal Health” column in today’s New York Times. “For Children in Sports, a Breaking Point” is about sports injuries to young athletes that are the result of overuse and overtraining.

“A major factor in the rising injury rate is the current emphasis on playing one sport all year long, which leaves no time for muscles and joints to recover from the inevitable microtrauma that occurs during practice and play,” according to Brody. “With increased specialization, there is no cross-training that would enable other muscles to strengthen and lighten the load.” — Dan Barr

Allaire Conte, a junior at Shadow Mountain High School at the time this photo was taken, was forced by a softball injury to complete her school year from home.

Preventing overuse-related sports injuries.

Is your child swim-team material?

Some kids seem to know what sport suits them; others need a nudge in the right direction. At age 13, I wanted to join the swim team because that’s where my friends were. It turned out to be a good choice. Athletically challenged, I was usually the last kid picked for games and sports during recess.

Swimming improved my coordination and boosted my self-confidence. In addition to racking up swimming medals, I lettered in high school track and volleyball and thought of myself as an athlete rather than a klutz. Now 47, I teach dance, body conditioning, balance and other group exercise classes to clients at Miraval Arizona; something I never imagined on playground days when team captains argued over who “would be stuck with me.”

Children who enjoy swimming as a competitive sport usually have very supportive parents, says Justin Slade, a 12-year swim coach who is now head coach for the Flying Fish Arizona Swim Team (FAST), a youth swimming program in Tucson. He suggests parents attend meets and practices and offer unconditional support.

My parents never “forced” my participation or reprimanded me when I swam poorly. My coach, Skip, made practices more fun than a chore and I have fond memories of traveling to meets with teammates. We’d stay in hotels or campgrounds and when not competing, we’d play cards, brown marshmallows over a fire and have pillow fights.

Our parents made it fun, too, by traveling with us, watching us compete, and tracking our improvement. The only teammate I remember who hated swimming had parents who screamed at him in front of us whenever he swam badly.

The experience a child has, good or bad, will likely become an ingrained, lifelong perception of training or working out. As a certified personal trainer and athlete, I’ve heard people refer to exercise as “suffering,” “torture,” “back breaking” and worse. I feel disconnected from such descriptions. Since most of my youthful swimming experiences were positive, exercise brings to mind laughing, friendship and feeling vividly alive. My participation in swimming as a youth led to a life-long love for fitness.

Parents sometimes ask what physical and mental qualities competitive swimming requires.

“It is like their first mini-job,” says Slade. They learn the relationship between hard work and success. They gain confidence in their abilities and learn “perseverance to overcome failure or tough situations.” The sport doesn’t deliver “instant gratification like a video game.” Weeks or even months of hard training are often required to get results.

Even though Michael Phelps’ long limbs, large feet, and amazing flexibility give him a physical advantage, determination and drive can often compensate for disadvantages in physique. Slade and I agree that any child who loves swimming should be encouraged to participate. For the most part, success “is in the hands of the swimmer,” he says.

I’m often a head shorter than other women on the starting blocks, but that doesn’t decrease the thrill for me. I’m not Dara Torres, but I still climb out of the water a winner every time. I feel healthy and exuberant and my physique remains sleek and athletic. I just hope that kids swimming today will feel the way I do when they grow up. — Susan Dawson-Cook

Susan Dawson-Cook lives in Tucson with her husband and two high-school-age children. A fitness professional, freelance writer and nationally ranked U.S. Masters swimmer, she holds three state records in breaststroke for the women’s 45 to 49 age group. Read her blog, Fit Women Rock.