Hansen’s Sunday Notebook: Star freshmen continue to impact high school sports in Southern Arizona

The Star columnist dives into how much freshmen have impacted Southern Arizona high schools, Kerr “Three”-sa’s historic first half against Utah, and how the transfer portal has fared for departures from the UA football team with spring ball approaching.

Over the past 25 years or so, I’ve watched what I believe are the two best freshmen performances in the history of Tucson high school sports.

In 2006, Canyon del Oro softball pitcher Kenzie Fowler went 28-4, struck out 421 batters in 201 innings and had an 0.13 ERA. She would go on to be the two-time Gatorade national player of the year.

In 2011, Sahuaro outfielder/pitcher Alex Verdugo hit .456 with 26-extra base hits and also was 7-3 as a starting pitcher with 100 strikeouts in 66 innings. Almost predictably, Verdugo is now a starting outfielder for the Boston Red Sox.

This month, Fowler and Verdugo have company, times two.

As Salpointe Catholic won the boys state soccer championship, freshman Leo Gutierrez scored 29 goals with 14 assists. Those numbers are almost unattainable by a senior.

Salpointe coach Wolfgang Weber, who has been coaching high school and youth soccer in Tucson since the early 1980s, told me that Gutierrez’s performance was indeed special. “In my 40 years as a high school coach, I don’t know of any big school’s freshman who has ever put up in his first year, 29 goals and 14 assists — meaning he was involved in 43 of our 110 goals. It’s a truly remarkable achievement.’’

A few days earlier, Sunnyside High School freshman wrestler Sergio Vega won the state championship at 106 pounds with a perfect 36-0 record. You don’t have to go far to put Vega’s performance in perspective. He comes from what is probably the No. 1 wrestling family in Tucson history. His brother, Danny Vega Jr., won three state championships at Sunnyside (2013-15) and was 181-3 overall. His father, Danny Vega Sr., also won three consecutive state titles as a Blue Devil (1992-94), including a 38-0 junior season.

To cap it off, Sergio’s grandfather, Andres Villa, won the 1975 state championship while at Pueblo.

And there’s one other connection to Tucson wrestling excellence. Sergio’s father operates the Tucson Cyclones wrestling training facility, which he started with Michael Bravo, grandfather of Sunnyside wrestling legend Roman Bravo-Young, who went 183-0 as a four-time state champion at Sunnyside and last year won the NCAA championship at Penn State.

It used to be rare for a freshman to just make the varsity roster in big school’s prep sports. Not any longer.

Kriisa’s half at Utah matches Kerr’s half at ASU in 1988
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Arizona guard Kerr Kriisa celebrates after hitting a 3-pointer against Utah during Thursday’s win in Salt Lake City.

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
Early Friday morning, Star reader Roger H. Taft emailed me to suggest the UA public address announcer begin referring to sophomore Kerr Kriisa as “Kerr THREE-iisa.” It’s a latter-day take on the way McKale Center’s 1980s PA man, Roger Sedlmayr, used to follow ever Steve Kerr 3 with “Steve KERRRRR!”

In late February 1988, Kerr had the half of his Wildcat career. In the infamous 101-73 victory at ASU — some Sun Devils students jeered and heckled Kerr during pre-game drills, chanting unspeakable phrases about his late father, Malcolm, who had been assassinated in Lebanon four years earlier — Kerr shut them up in a hurry. Kerr went 7 for 7 from 3-point range in the first half, and had 21 points at the half.

Thursday at Salt Lake City, Kriisa went 7 for 8 from 3-point distance in the first half for 21 points as Arizona won 97-77.

What made Kriisa’s performance so compelling was that he made those 3-pointers in a space of 11:51. Here’s how it went:

11:51: Made 3-pointer

10:08: Made 3-pointer

8:38: Missed 3-pointer

6:12: Made 3-pointer

5:27: Made 3-pointer

1:57: Made 3-pointer

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