PRESCOTT - When Pima upset the Yavapai College softball team in the NJCAA Region I, Division I championship game last May at Bill Vallely Field, Roughriders leftfielder Brandi Heimburg, like many of her teammates, was brought to tears.
After all, defending junior college national champion Yavapai had been gunning for its fifth straight region title and a fifth consecutive national tournament appearance since the school's athletic department revived the program in 2008.
Instead, the NJCAA No. 3-ranked Roughriders - the 2012 Arizona Conference regular-season champs who finished with a 57-10 overall record and were among the favorites to win it all again - turned in their uniforms and braced for a busy off-season.
"I usually don't cry in softball, but after that (championship) game, I was balling my eyes out because I couldn't believe that we lost," Heimburg said in reflection from the 2013 team's preseason practice Wednesday. "Coming back now, we know what it takes to win."
Yavapai sophomore second baseman Kasey Oliver had similar sentiments.
"It was the worst thing in my whole life - watching them celebrate on our own field," Oliver said of Pima's victory. "And it's not going to happen again."
Yavapai interim coach Lisa Parks, the lead assistant under beloved former coach Stacy Iveson when YC won national crowns in 2009 and 2011, departed after the 2012 campaign.
In late July, following an extensive national search, longtime college coach Terri Knecht grabbed the Roughriders program's reins with the hopes of guiding it back to the top.
"That's primarily been the focus with the kids. Really it's been a matter of, 'This is Yavapai history, and we're not going to change the history in any way,' " Knecht said. " 'We're going to go back to the national tournament, and we're going to do what's necessary to get ready and get prepared.' "
But aiming for the pinnacle this spring will be a challenge, particularly with the 2013 season opener fast approaching Jan. 25 at the College of Southern Nevada Kickoff Classic in Las Vegas.
This past off-season, six key starting sophomores, including All-American pitchers Estela Pinon and Amelia Willadsen, moved on. Pinon and Willadsen combined to account for 48 of Yavapai's 57 wins last spring.
That stellar group also featured four players who formed the heart of the batting order in star third baseman/catcher Ashleigh Seipel, Pinon, catcher/first baseman Brittany McCray and right fielder Tessa Fanning. Shortstop Miraya Montiel, who hit in the No. 8 hole, left as well.
And Yavapai recently suffered another blow. Knecht confirmed this week that incoming starting sophomore first baseman/pitcher Kat Macias will not be back on the club.
Macias, who scored 45 runs and hit .340 with 57 RBIs and a team-best 14 home runs last season, had also turned into a solid pitcher, compiling a 9-2 record with a 3.08 ERA in 61-1/3 innings of work in 2012.
Knecht said that despite Macias' absence, the Roughriders should be fine.
"We have depth, so we're OK with the adjustments," Knecht said. "The kids that thought they were maybe going to be a secondary player or play a different role on the team are now playing a starting role or a different starting role. But they're talented enough that that's not an issue."
On the slab in 2013, Knecht will instead turn to freshman Aundria Zuniga-Romero, a Safford High product, as her No. 1 starter. Zuniga-Romero's repertoire includes a rise ball, a curve, a change-up and a drop ball.
"Aundria's throwing about 65 miles an hour," Knecht said. "She's legit. She's going to throw the ball hard and she's going to strike a lot of people out. She can carry the weight. If we had to ride one arm, she's the kind of kid that can do it."
Zuniga-Romero said she's looking forward to the challenge.
"It's a lot different coming out of high school to a program like Yavapai, but it's been a lot of fun so far meeting new girls all around," she said. "I just like the way we gel. It's cool. It's a really good experience."
Sophomore Sarah Thompson, formerly of Chino Valley High, will pitch in spots but receive plenty of innings. Last spring, Thompson notched a 5.40 ERA in only 10 frames and didn't post any wins.
"Sarah's got movement, but she's got to get tougher at hitting her spots and being consistent," Knecht said. "As we went through these changes, she's stepping up and is willing to take on that (backup) role."
Knecht added that by Monday she'll have another arm in freshman transfer Harli Klein who can help eat innings.
Yavapai's outfield is one of the team's primary strengths.
Returning All-American Heimburg remains in left and will likely move from the leadoff spot to the No. 3 hole in the batting order. Last season she sported a .409 average (86-for-210) with a team-high 26 doubles as well as 38 RBIs and 66 runs scored.
"This year our batting lineup is more solid, and everyone can get a hit," Heimburg said.
Starting sophomore centerfielder Alma Cortez, who batted in the No. 2 slot last spring but could play leadoff, also returns. In 2012, Cortez hit .348 (77-for-221) with 20 RBIs and 67 runs scored.
In right field, returning sophomore Taylor Riesgo will take over for Fanning and hit in either the leadoff or the No. 2 spot. Last spring the speedy Riesgo received decent playing time. She had a .357 average (49-for-137) with 42 RBIs and recorded a team-high 18 stolen bases in 19 attempts.
Knecht said the fleet-footed, power-hitting Roughriders will be more aggressive on the base paths this spring to apply more pressure to opposing defenses.
"We're going to be running and taking extra bases," she said. "It's going to be fun to watch us play for that reason."
While the outfield is set, the infield isn't.
With Macias gone, the Roughriders have a three-way battle brewing at first base among returning sophomore utility player Sam Wilson, freshman lefty Val Luera from Vail Cienega and sophomore power hitter Hannah Hill from St. Bonaventure High in Ventura, Calif.
Second baseman Oliver, a team leader who will bat in the No. 5 hole, represents the lone returning infielder. Knecht said freshman Jade Yost of Apache Junction should start at shortstop, while freshman Alexa Redman of Gilbert High and Luera compete for the third base job.
Freshman backup shortstop/second baseman Alexis Aguirre out of Tucson Canyon del Oro will see playing time, too, as could returning sophomore Sam Wilson.
At catcher, freshman Brooke Eifert from Scottsdale Chaparral should start.
"Her swing looks great, and she's just ready to go," Knecht said of Eifert.
Although Knecht did not have the luxury of recruiting any of her freshmen, she said her roster has the pitching, hitting and defensive talent required to play at a high level.
The coach added that her returning sophomores are hungry for redemption after losing the region championship last spring in Prescott.
Oliver said all of the off-season trials and tribulations will benefit the Roughriders in the long run. The team has rallied around Knecht.
"We've worked hard to come this far, so we're going to stick together through anything," Oliver said. "The whole thing made us closer as a team."