Led by a dominant ace, Kuna softball pursues 4A SIC perfection

Pitcher Nicole Arizana and the first-place Kavemen have a daunting week ahead.

tphibbs@idahostatesman.comApril 22, 2014 

JOE JASZEWSKI — jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

  • Can Kuna stay perfect in the 4A SIC?

    Kuna softball remains the only Treasure Valley team in the two largest classifications with an unblemished league record in either softball or baseball.

    That distinction will be challenged this week with games against the second- through fourth-place teams in the 4A SIC standings.

    The stretch begins at 5 p.m. Tuesday against defending league, district and state champion Bishop Kelly (11-4, 9-2). After falling three times to the Knights in 2013, Kuna (13-2, 11-0) won the first game of the series 4-0 on April 1.

    Kuna visits Middleton (15-2, 10-2) on Thursday before hosting Emmett (11-6, 8-4) on Friday.

    Middleton, which has outscored its opponents 176-43, has won seven straight since losing to Kuna 2-1 on April 1. Emmett has won 7-of-8. Kuna topped the Huskies 7-1 on April 4.

— Kuna High softball pitcher Nicole Arizana appreciates silence. Emblematic of her family-prioritized Native American heritage, she grew up sharing the same roof with 10 relatives. Noise became normal.

At a young age, she began to discover serenity within the confines of a 16-foot pitching circle. Softball evolved into her passion. Oozing with talent, Arizana earned the No. 1 spot in Kuna's rotation as a freshman, but, albeit successful, she never fully tapped her true potential during her first two seasons.

Now a junior, Arizana has emerged as one of the most dominant 4A players on the Valley's most dominant 4A softball team. She is 12-1 and has 112 strikeouts and nine walks with a 1.73 ERA in 72 innings.

"Her freshman season, I think everything was new and exciting," coach Joe Kleffner said. "Last year she was one of our returners, and I don't know if she handled that as well as she could have, even though she still did well. This year, she's different. She's growing up."

Experience provided transformation. Arizana continued her maturation with every inning pitched, steadily learning the delineation between playing for amusement and playing to win.

"My freshman year, I would goof around a lot," Arizana said. "This year, I've been taking things seriously. (I've) changed a lot. It's weird going from a young, inexperienced person looking up to seniors, to being the one that people look up to. That's really different for me."

Occasionally, Arizana relapses to old tendencies and loses focus. Earlier this season, she approached a nonconference tournament game absent-mindedly. It didn't count, she said. The result: a 16-0 loss to Capital.

"That really opened my eyes," she said. "That's what kind of motivated me to be more focused."

Added Kleffner: "As a freshman, she probably would have cried. This year, she took it in stride. She doesn't wear things as much."

Channeling her thoughts and emotions is part of her progression. Restless by nature, she fidgets with her hands and taps her toes while she talks, constantly fighting an ongoing battle she jokingly describes as a "four-inch problem" between her ears.

"When I was a freshman, I would get really mad when my team would make errors, but then I realized if I get mad it affects them negatively," she said, abruptly pausing to voices in the distance.

"Hold on. I got distracted," she laughed before continuing unfazed. "Now when they make errors I'm like, 'Hey, it's OK.' I want everyone to be comfortable enough with me, so if they make an error they can brush it off."

Arizana strengthened her patience, but her competitiveness remains untamed. It's palpable, the same cutthroat mentality her sisters, Delphine and Ashleigh, and her aunt, Angela Martinez, displayed during their days in the Kuna program.

"I want to be better than her," Nicole said of Ashleigh, who set the school's single-season strikeout record during its championship run in 2008. "I don't want groundballs, and I don't want popups. I want strikeouts. I want to hear my name come up on the intercom and hear them say, 'Another strikeout for Nicole.' "

With five games remaining in the regular season, Arizana has surpassed her 2013 conference strikeout total (100) with 102.

"Nicole has all the tools," Kleffner said. "It's her ability to hit her spots. It looks like its coming here and it goes there."

Softball provided tranquility, an opportunity to find her way. Now Arizana's once-crowded house has shrunk. Everyone has moved on and grown up, she said.

She is growing up, too.

"Softball has taught me a lot. It's been a big part of my life," Arizana explained. "It's helped me realize a lot about myself, like how hard I can work and how if I don't - it can affect me."

Trevor Phibbs: 377-6424, Twitter: @IDS_Phibbs

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