Empire High School was founded in 2005. According to education site District Administration, the Tucson, Ariz. school is known for its all-digital curriculum and solar panels powering a completely wireless infrastructure. The school is cutting-edge when it comes to technology. But for a decade, Empire went without a team state athletics championship.
That changed this past year when the Ravens went 30-5 and upset top-seeded Payson High School for the Arizona Division III softball title.
Among Empire’s successes was a penchant for efficient defense, with a .948 fielding percentage to show for it. Backing up a strong pitching arsenal like the Ravens had at their disposal is a team effort, to be sure, but coach Shannon Woolridge credits assistant Kandice Tiggas for introducing an outfield drill that Woolridge says made a huge difference for his team.
When working with outfielders, Tiggas breaks their motions down into minute increments and then uses them in every possible game-like scenario. Here’s how it works:
To start the drill, “players line up shoulder-to-shoulder,” said Woolridge, whose daughter Brittany pitched a complete game in the state championship title May 11. “Each player has a ball, which they eventually give to the coach to toss to them.”
The line of outfielders first practices its drop steps — the first motion an outfielder should make to chase down a fly ball hit over her head. Players drop to their right, then to their left, then straight back. They do this two times each, always turning to their glove side.
The last part of the drill’s opening stanza is the drop step and crossover. Once a player angles herself toward a fly ball’s trajectory via the drop step, her next move should be to bring her opposite hip around and take off after the ball.
Once the outfielders have displayed proper footwork, attention turns toward fielding ground balls. First, they collect sharp rollers while dropping to a knee, twice on each side.
Then Empire’s coaches work on their outfielders’ lateral range by having them field “infield style,” as Woolridge calls it. This entails hard ground balls hit to either side of the outfielder, with the objective being to scoop them up as quickly as possible.
Lastly, players are saddled with “do-or-die” ground balls — slow rolling or hopping hits that require a quick catch and release to throw an opposing base runner out in time. Do-or-dies are best fielded with two hands.
Then comes the hallmark of most any outfield defense drill: fly balls.
But even these are broken down into fragments. First, a player sees two fly balls hit straight in her direction. Then she gets two more to the right and another pair to the left.
Woolridge has his outfielders close out the drill with either one more fly ball or “do-or-die” grounder, followed by a diving catch.
If the Ravens’ season was any indication, they know a thing or two about finishing things effectively.