Ridgeline’s status as Utah softball power confirmed with second title in three years | Sports

In the wake of the COVID-19 shortened spring season, Ridgeline softball stood at a crossroads though no one quite yet knew. An elite program would soon be born in Millville.

Four years into the program’s existence, the Riverhawks were by no means in dire straits. They owned a 57-36 overall record with a 16-7 mark in region games with a top three finish in the region standings every year (except 2020 which didn’t have region games due to being shortened).

Ridgeline was a good team. But good teams don’t do what the Riverhawks accomplished last month — complete a 30-1 season by appearing in a third straight title game and winning the 4A state championship for a second time in those three years.

Getting to the top in Utah softball is no short or simple task, with a host of great teams standing between getting to a single championship series, let alone three straight. But the Riverhawks are on the cusp of becoming the next dynasty of 4A softball.

Oddly enough, though, arguably Ridgeline’s biggest rival to becoming a softball powerhouse, Bear River, also served as the model for success. For decades, the Bears have been ascendant in Utah softball, winning 11 championships (a total matched only by Manti), including an unparalleled five straight titles from 2008 to 2012.

Michael Anderson, Ridgeline’s head coach, joined the Full Court Press alongside two of his top players, catcher Anne Wallace and pitcher Brielle Gardiner, and among many other aspects of his team’s success praised Bear River for the program they’ve built and the role it’s played in his own program’s rise.

“I don’t think we could have won state without Bear River,” Anderson said. “That’s been a program that we try to follow, and so to get even with them and to get in the same sentence as them, we needed that competition to prepare us for what happens at state.”

Three members of Ridgeline’s 4A state title-winning softball team joined Jason Walker and Eric Frandsen on the Full Court Press — head coach Mike Anderson, junior catcher Anne Wallace and freshman pitcher Brielle Gardiner. The three share their experience with going 30-1 this season and how the Riverhawks’ program has grown since this was the third straight season they’ve appeared in the title game (winning twice).

The architect of Bear River’s 24-year dynasty, Calvin Bingham, got his storybook ending at the expense of Ridgeline. In the 2023 championship series, the Riverhawks won game one, but lost two straight against the coach who’d already planned his retirement after the series.

Despite Bingham stepping down as head coach, battling through the Bears to win the region wasn’t easy, despite what 7-3 and 9-3 victories in the two matchups may suggest (which were actually two of the three closest games in Ridgeline’s 10 region contests).

“It’s always a competition with them,” said catcher Anne Wallace. “There’s always a lot of fans there. It’s very loud and it’s great competition.”

Bear River isn’t the only elite team Ridgeline got to cut its teeth against. This year alone, the Riverhawks faced the 3A state champion, the 5A state champion and both teams that appeared in the 6A title series. And of the MaxPreps Top 25 softball teams in the state of Utah, Ridgeline faced 10, including five of the top 10 (the Riverhawks were ranked No. 1, for those curious).

That Ridgeline faced these top-flight teams, many of which represent the elite programs of the state, is another mark of ascendance into becoming a powerhouse unto itself. When you become a great program, other great programs want to play you. Prior to the last couple of years, teams weren’t exactly eager to make the trip all the way north and through Sardine Canyon to face teams in Cache Valley. Now teams are reaching out to Anderson seeking home-and-home series with the Riverhawks.

“We now are in that place where those more powerful schools want to play us and so they’ll actually travel up here and we’ll go down there and play them,” Anderson said.

Amid all this it’s probably worth noting that against all these powerhouse schools, the Riverhawks went 13-1 with a +116 run differential (or an average margin of +8.3 runs).

That one loss, though, represented the singular shortcoming for the Riverhawks in 2024. One defeat. A 5-3 decision against Spanish Fork, a team that went 30-3, itself, and was the eventual Utah 5A champion.

Setting aside the fact the loss wrecked the prospect of using terms like “undefeated” or “perfect season,” what this loss showed more than anything, was the resolve of this team to be as perfect as possible.

“The kids came back that next week and let’s just meet up at our place, turn the lights on and play at 1:00 in the morning,” Anderson said.

That the decision to have an impromptu 1 a.m. practice session was made by players isn’t a coincidence. The term “player-led team,” or some variation of that, is occasionally used by coaches. For Ridgeline it was more than simple lip service or coach speak.

“As a coaching staff we used to be all about calling every pitch, calling every play on the field,” Anderson said. “And then what happened is we stepped back and started giving the kids more credit. Not only controlling our culture, but also what happens on the field.”

That decision to become a more player-led team occurred, perhaps not very coincidently, about three years ago, when this string of title game appearances began. And it really does give a lot of power to the athletes.

“The kids are the ones that do the communication. The kids are the ones that decide when we practice. How long we go and what we do,” Anderson said. “And what we had is a special group this year that was willing and wanted to work harder than probably a normal coaching staff wanted to.”

It’s a fairly unique way of doing things, but by no means unwelcome by the players.

“I like how we do it on this team because I feel like in the end we’re the ones on the field so it’s nice to in practice have control of everything because you’re going to have control of it on the field,” Gardiner said. “And it’s good to trust your players. I feel like when the team is player-driven, we end up trusting our players more to get the job done.”

Turning over more power to these players makes sense when you see just what they are capable of. A bevy of talented players are powering this run, not the least of which are Gardiner and Wallace. The pitcher-catcher duo powered the state’s best defense. In 162.1 innings pitched by Gardiner with Wallace calling “90 percent” of pitches according to Anderson, the Riverhawks allowed just 18 earned runs, or a 0.78 ERA, with 246 strikeouts to 53 walks for an overall on-base percentage of 0.218.

Not only did they lead the way defensively, the two were also dominant offensively. The pair were top two on the team in on-base percentage and slugging. Gardiner topped the squad with er .532 batting average and added nine home runs and a team-best 55 RBI’s. Wallace led the team in home runs despite also being walked 31 times (next-closest on the team was one of the other top sluggers, Ellie Pond with 18 free passes to first).

Unsurprisingly, Wallace and Gardiner are highly sought after in college recruiting circles. Wallace is committed to play for Texas, which just recently ended the season as the runner-up to national champion Oklahoma. Gardiner, having just finished her freshman campaign, has yet to commit but is likewise sought after by the best programs in the nation.

Gardiner will obviously return for three more years and Wallace will have one last ride as a senior next year, but there will be significant losses. Five seniors are on their way out and those naturally include some of the Riverhawks’ best hitters, like Pond, Ava Howell and Kylie Jorgensen.

But that’s just the ever-present next step for dominant programs. Ridgeline lost seven seniors prior to the 2024 campaign. Great teams reload with more talent in a self-perpetuating cycle of excellence. And for now, there’s no indication the Ridgeline machine is slowing down. It may even only just now be truly getting started.

Source link

Share This Article



Related Articles