Watching Amphi play softball, even in a mercy loss to Desert View on Wednesday night, was a smile for a minute.
The Panthers play for the love of the game in a truly fun and unconventional way that even the most diehard softball players have to respect, no matter if the team is 0-5.
One of Amphi’s pitchers throws underhand, not with the fastball clearance. Senior Captain Maliyah Espinoza is like a coach shouting step-by-step batting instructions from the dugout to teammates who are new to the game. -run for the out at second base – only there was no runner on first at the time of being ejected.
The Desert View hitter hit base on the pick of this rare defender. The reaction of the Panthers? A good laugh.
“It looked like a good game,” coach Laura Espinoza-Watson shouted from the dugout amid laughter at his second baseman, who smiled back.
These are the Good News Bears.
Espinoza-Watson has been one of the best names in softball in the history of the sport in Tucson, and the nation, in fact, since his outstanding slugging career in Arizona.
Signed up as head coach at Amphi for the first time this season – despite having coached with the program for the past six years – Espinoza-Watson would prefer to remain undetected by the public.
She doesn’t like the attention because she once lived life in the spotlight as a legendary Arizona softball player who still holds the NCAA season record for homers (37) and RBIs (128 ) in 1995.
She is accustomed to success and is a prominent member of the softball community coaching the nationally ranked 14U AZ ThunderCats club team.
“I don’t like being interviewed; I don’t like that I’m out there,” Espinoza-Watson said.
Moving the topic from Espinoza-Watson to what she and her coaches, including her sister Irma Espinoza-Sonnandk (Mariyah’s mother), try to do in Amphi is rather what she prefers to discuss.
Amphi is literally a downtown school, in the heart of Tucson at Oracle and Prince, with its share of students experiencing life in this neighborhood.
Some Amphi students drop out to work minimum wage jobs to help make ends meet at home. Others are devoid of the motivation to complete academic demands while trying to survive each day at home or on the streets in school from the hard knocks.
“I can tell you that at Amphi it’s not about – and this is going to sound cliché – but it’s really not about winning or losing, it’s about giving these young women the opportunity to play a game that they’ve seen they’d like to try,” Espinoza-Watson said. “I invite the whole school out whether the kids have played or not, and we have so many children in the program who have never played. I will never deny them the opportunity to play this game.”
The mood in the Amphi dugout is not one of being depressed with a winless record and a difficult home and school life.
Rather the opposite.
It is uplifting. It’s the family. It is believing that difficulties can be faced with optimism.
The Espinozas are everywhere in this atmosphere.
The grandmother/Nana attends all the games and sits near the dugout. Laura and Irma’s sister-in-law — Melissa Bugarin-Espinoza — is also part of the coaching staff. Their brother MoeMelissa’s husband who is part of Amphi’s football coaching staff, is still there.
Moe and Melissa’s son Jacobwho played for Amphi college football as a rookie and rose to become one of southern Arizona’s top running backs, attends softball games with his sister Isabella (a standout with the 14U ThunderCats).
“Everything we do, we support each other,” Laura said. “That’s how it’s been our whole life, whether we’re coaching or playing. We just do it together.
son of Laura David and daughter kristina are Amphi graduates competing in college. David, a former Arizona football player, is now at Adams State (where Maliyah is heading on a softball scholarship) and Kristiana is one of Arizona State‘s best softball players as a rookie.
“It’s about community,” Laura said. “You don’t have kids getting bussed or driving her across town. It’s about the Amphi community, trying to do something together and sharing something.
“My two children graduated here and they did very well. I have absolutely embraced the community here at Amphi. There’s just a lot more to this school than people realize. It’s not just about winning. It’s about those relationships.
She has a genuine interest in athlete development beyond the diamond, as evidenced by the work she does daily at Amphi.
Laura and Irma are involved in Amphi’s unique GEAR UP program which involves assistance with college and career planning after high school.
Among the GEAR UP activities, Laura and Irma and others in the program help students to:
- Financial aid opportunities, including scholarships and FAFSA applications
- Apply to colleges, major selection, and college tours
- Help find resources for technical schools, community colleges, and military options
- Students learn more about their interests and strengths
“I think by being here I’m able to give these players an opportunity because there’s a lot of people who have been around this game, they won’t give these kids the time of day,” said Laura, who is married to the former Arizona lineman david watsonwhom she met while playing for the Wildcats.
“I’ve earned my share over the years. I have won in my life. Here’s just an opportunity to teach and really build lasting relationships, and connect with kids no one would ever give a chance. That’s what I’m most proud of being here. I would never trade those girls. They are great people. They are beautiful young girls, good students. And they are a joy to be around.
Laura mentioned that other schools have tried to pull Jacob away from Amphi’s soccer program because of his talents — he was selected in December on AllSportsTucson.com freshman from local schools in Region 4A.
These other programs obviously haven’t done their homework on the Espinoza family background and strong connection to the Amphi community.
“For me, high school isn’t about sports,” Laura said. “For many, they want to go to the best high school program. For me, academics are very strong here in the school district. I taught here, and I was also a parent here. I was so impressed with our faculty here at Amphi.
“That says a lot. I wish more people in the community, when they hear “Amphi”, take a minute to find out about the things Amphi has to offer, rather than whether or not it’s a program winning athlete, because it’s not just about that.
Desert View third baseman Savanna Alvarez went 4-for-4 with two runs and five RBIs in the 19-5 win over Amphi in five innings. She also scored a brace and stole three bases.
Aneisa Rodrigueza right fielder, also drove in five RBIs while going 2 for 4 and shortstop Alma Teilon went 3 for 4 with three runs and two RBIs.
Kristal Leyva pitched all five innings and struck out four and walked one while scattering eight hits. The cleanup hitter, she had two hits in her two official at-bats and had three runs and two RBIs.
Desert View improved to 5-4 with the win.
The Panthers are out for a week due to spring break and then they will play on March 18 when they take part in the Hayden Invitational.
Desert View is also disabled until March 22, when he will play in Nogales.
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Javier Morales, publisher, writer and editor of ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com, is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News, and Baseball America, among many other publications. He is also the author of the book “The Highest Form of Living”, available on Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is currently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.