"I never told anyone this, but to tell you the truth, I would have been surprised and disappointed if we had not played that well," Pena said following the Pioneers' 7-2 loss to Chandler Hamilton in the 6A state championship game on Monday night.
"We had a lot of great pitchers and hitters. We had speed and power, and we had a lot of really smart players. If we failed, it was going to be my fault not our players' fault."
A second-year coach, Pena took over a Pinnacle program that was solid but not among Arizona's upper-echelon teams following the 2015 season. He said he immediately recognized that he had a talented team but also sensed a culture change was needed for the Pioneers to meet their potential.
"I always thought the talent was there, but something was missing," Pena said. "It was like a lot of players didn't realize how truly special they could be. I wanted them to fully immerse themselves in all aspects of the game. To understand that if you put yourself in the right position offensively or defensively, you chances to win increase dramatically."
It was a slow process.
"It took about 12 to 15 games last year but we started to figure it out," Pena said. "By the end of the season, we had it humming along pretty good. Based on what we had coming back this season, I knew we had a chance to be outstanding."
Pinnacle quickly established itself as one of the top teams not only in the state but also in the nation.
The team featured a fearsome lineup that hit .390 collectively. For the season, the Pioneers had six players who drove in more that 25 runs on the season, including sophomore Taylor Fawcett, who hit .400 with 42 RBIs out of the No. 2 hole.
"Fawcett is an outstanding player but the fact that she has that many runs batted in from the number two hole tells you that our No. 7, 8, and 9 hitters were getting on base a lot," Pena said.
Jackie Kelley (senior, .444, 22 RBIs), Emma Bullard (freshman, .392, 26 RBIs), Kris Slayton (senior, .364, 27 RBIs), and Jessica Mabrey (junior, .377, 35 RBIs) all had big years at the plate, but the real catalyst was junior Marissa Schuld.
Already on most state and national watch lists for player of the year honors, Schuld hit a ridiculous .505 with 15 home runs and 57 RBIs this season. But her batting was only half the story as Schuld was also the ace of the Pioneers' pitching staff. She finished 22-1 with a 0.80 ERA. She struck out 248 batters in just 131 innings (13.3 per game) and allowed just 15 earned runs all season.
Her only loss was Monday's upset to Hamilton (30-6).
"Marissa can do it all," Pena said. "She has total control of all her pitches and knows when to throw them. She has great command of the plate and seldom misses her spots. At the plate she hits for both power and average. More than half her hits (29 of 58) have gone for extra bases. She's just a junior, and I think she will be signed as pitcher but I have to believe they are going to want her to swing the bat too."
As if having one pitcher like Schuld isn't a luxury, Pena had two. Pinnacle's No. 2 in the circle was senior CC Cook, who went 12-1 with a 0.88 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 95 innings this season. Cook, who also plays first base, hit .394 with eight extra base hits and 16 RBIs.
On top excelling in all areas of the game, Pena says his team's biggest asset was its intelligence. His 13 rostered players have a cumulative weighted team grade point average of 4.133, and he said their classroom intelligence carried over to the field.
"I'm more than a little anal about everything," Pena said. "I'm constantly challenging my players to talk about and to think about what they are seeing on the field. We want everyone on the field to be thinking about every player on the other side. Their strengths, their weaknesses, their tendencies. Understanding when you need to scratch a run out or go for the big inning. I put a lot of pressure on our team to think but you have to have smart players to do that and I am definitely blessed to have a team with a high softball IQ."