When he was putting together his initial football staff at North Medford High, Mike Mitchell put a particularly different spin on his...
PHOENIX — It seems every bit a case of, if you can't beat them, join them.
The infusion this year of the dad, Jason Zanni, and his daughter Meranda, a standout player, into the Phoenix High softball program is far more complicated.
Yes, last spring Meranda was the top pitcher on a Douglas High of Winston team that suffered a surprising 4-3 loss to Phoenix in a Class 4A play-in game. It ended the Trojans' season and left a bad taste in the sophomore right-hander's mouth.
Meanwhile, Jason — who had coached Meranda at every level from the time she took up T-ball as a 4-year-old — was living in the Rogue Valley, separated from his wife, Louisa, and their three children for more than 16 months because of work.
"Me and my dad have always been really close," says Meranda. "It was hard only getting to see him on weekends."
Jason, a former officer in the Winston police and Douglas County sheriff departments, took a job with Jackson County in January 2010. He's a code enforcement officer in development services.
He always figured when his daughter entered high school, his coaching days would end.
"I thought it'd be like, 'Here, you go forth and conquer and have fun,'" says Jason, 41. "I didn't realize until I'd been down here almost two years how much I missed it."
Last summer, the puzzle pieces came together. Jason learned Phoenix had a softball coaching vacancy. He expressed interest in the position to his family and particularly wanted Meranda's opinion. If he got the head coaching job, or found work as an assistant with the Pirates, his team could face hers again.
Meranda was all for the idea, so long as he understood, she says, that he "better be prepared to lose."
Jason got a kick out of that, and he responded by saying he'd try just as hard to beat her team.
"Just a friendly rivalry with your daughter," he says.
But Meranda was pondering another possibility. Douglas was to lose its coach, and some of her friends on the team planned to transfer. She mulled the idea of moving 90 minutes south to live with her dad and attend Phoenix.
Softball wasn't the driving force, which is itself interesting. Sports had always been a tremendously powerful bonding agent in their relationship. This time, not so much.
"I wasn't even thinking about that when it came to making my decision," says Meranda.
Indeed, Jason wasn't hired as the head coach until December.
By then, his daughter had enrolled at Phoenix in the fall, joined the volleyball team, left the volleyball team and got her parents on a conference call to discuss the possibility of her returning home. The school year was four weeks old. She had moved from cozy confines, the only place she knew as home, to the unknown, and she was homesick.
"I was kind of going through a stage where I was really upset," says Meranda. "I thought, maybe I should go back. Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do."
Her parents told her all along it was her decision. When they conferred, it was still her call "… sort of.
"They set down the law and said I'd have to stick it out through the first quarter," she says.
She's grateful for their tough love.
"It's kind of hard to get used to new stuff, but it's not so bad," says Meranda. "I'm really glad I stayed."
So, too, are the Pirates.
Phoenix was fourth in the Skyline Conference last year before upsetting Douglas, the Far West League champion, in the play-in. The Pirates were 7-17 overall.
With several players back from that team, which was coached by Randy Kirkland, and the Zanni tandem in the mix, this year's squad is 9-2 entering a nonconference doubleheader at Rogue River today. The losses were to Class 6A Tigard and one-loss Elmira.
Skyline play starts Tuesday, with Phoenix visiting North Valley.
When Meranda Zanni's presence at school became evident, the Phoenix players knew the caliber of teammate they inherited. She was player of the year in the Far West League in 2011, and they got a good look at her in the play-in contest.
"She is a good pitcher," says Delanie Tally, who pitched a five-hitter with six strikeouts in beating Douglas. "I guess we were hitting that game, and hitting at the right time. Other times, we couldn't hit off her. It's awesome to be playing with her this year."
Makayla Scoggins had three hits and two RBIs for Phoenix and Mia Alanez two hits. Like Tally, they are teammates of Zanni's now, and it's open season for ribbing.
"It's like, 'Oh, I got my best hit of the year off you last year,'" laughs Zanni. "I'm like, oh, great, thanks.'"
Zanni has done her share of hitting and pitching. The latter is her favorite and has been since her dad, who was coaching her youth team, found himself shy of hurlers. He asked his daughter to try it. In the back yard they went, Mom, a former high school pitcher, helping with fundamentals, and Dad, a former high school and junior college outfielder and catcher, receiving.
"I just fell in love with it," says Meranda.
She's fashioned a 4-2 record and is coming off a no-hit, 10-0 victory over Ashland on Thursday. With all her pitches — fastball, changeup, screwball and dropball — working and her ability to locate them spot on, she fanned 10 in six innings and hit a batter.
Meranda's fastball is about 60 mph, which is above average in high school. She's struck out 62 batters in 40 innings, has allowed 35 hits and owns a 2.98 ERA.
"When your changeup is on and you're dropping 15 miles off your pitch, it makes it real difficult to get balanced in the batter's box," says Jason. "Then you start moving your pitches in and out and up and down, and it's hard to get a good picture of her."
Meranda is quick to point out that her job in the circle is made much easier by a talented defense behind her, something she noticed about the Pirates last spring.
On offense, she leads the team in most offensive categories, including batting average (.500) and RBIs (18). Among her 18 hits, she has 10 doubles and four triples.
Two teammates are also hitting above .400. Powerful sophomore Amanda Skaff has a .436 average with five triples, 16 runs and 12 RBIs, and Tally is batting .405.
Balancing the father-daughter act at the high school level worried Jason before the season started.
"That was our concern, how do we make this work," he says. "People expect dads to coach in the rec-ball and travel-ball leagues."
He makes a distinction between their roles on the softball field. For instance, Meranda called him "Coach!" in the game on Thursday because she couldn't get his attention calling out "Dad!"
Even if Meranda struggles in the circle and he makes the trip from the bench, it's an upbeat conversation. Fortunately, she says, there hasn't been the need for many visits.
"He's never that hard on me or any of the girls," she says. "He always brings everybody up. He's always smiling, focusing on the positive and not the negative. It's nice to have a coach like that."
Teammates wonder about his ever-sunny disposition.
"I tell them, 'I don't know. He's not like that at home,'" she kids.
At home. It has a nice ring to both of them.
Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email email@example.com