Four 5A baseball teams - Higley, Horizon, Nogales and Sunrise Mountain - raced out to big starts in March, creating a large rankings gap between themselves and the rest of the conference.
However, the three teams right below that big four will have an advantage once the playoffs begin. Canyon, View, Millennium and Verrado all faced each other twice in the Desert West, the toughest region in 5A.
These teams looked evenly matched entering league games and the first skirmish bears that out. Millennium won 7-6 March 29 in Waddell, then the Jaguars returned the favor with a 4-3 victory March 31 in Goodyear.
Canyon View (13-1) got its first loss from Millennium, but coach Nicholas Swanson said the competitive games were needed and more are on the way. The Jaguars play in their first National Classic tournament in Orange County Monday.
“The two games against Millennium felt like playoff baseball. Verrado is a natural rival because they’re right down the street,” Swanson said. “Our schedule is kind of a mystery. It was not very tough and then it gets very tough. We are going to California on Sunday to play in the National Classic, which is one of the most prestigious tournaments in the country. It’s a bucket list tournament for me because I’ve never had a team good enough to compete in it.”
Verrado is above the fray for the moment, ranked #5 in 5A and leading the region with its games with Canyon View and Millennium to come.
This triangulated rivalry is still very new. Canyon View is in its fourth year, and while the school is closer to Verrado, some of its attendance area used to be Millennium's.
“It’s always going to be fun going up against them and it was the same result as last year. We went over there and took care of business and they came back to our place and responded,” Millennium coach Matthew Royal said. “I’ll always applaud the effort at the end. We were in the game from start to finish. It looks like it’s going to be fun every time we step onto the field with them and I’m looking forward to that.”
Tigers senior Sean Farney tied the March 31 game with a screaming one hop RBI that handcuffed the Jaguars' shortstop.
The visitors broke the 1-1 deadlock quickly. Junior Liam Whalen's sacrifice fly reclaimed the lead in the fifth inning, Then starting pitcher Jacob Heppner hit a big hop groundout to plate a runner at third base, and another Jaguar came home on a passed ball.
“Hats off to them. They’re an incredibly athletic team,” Canyon View coach Nicholas Swanson said. “We work on situational hitting every single day and it’s something we’re pretty good at. Every guy in the lineup, I have total confidence in. I was proud of how they performed in those late-inning situations.”
Senior center fielder Kaleb Duncan hits a bloop double to set up Millennium at second and third base with no outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. Both runners scored but on groundouts and Canyon View hung on.
Millennium was the surprise #1 seed in 5A last year. Even though Queen Creek Casteel upset the Tigers in the second round, Royal has noticed other teams approaching his differently.
“We always expect to see a No. 1 pitcher, regardless if it’s a four-game week. We always expect to see teams set up like that. And we like it. It challenges us.”
This is Canyon View's first team with a senior class - and the first time pressure to win 5A has entered the equation.
Swanson said it is special to have senior leaders teaching younger kids. But he admitted the feel around this team is different.
“We were always playing with house money before. There was no pressure on us. We always played up and played kids two, three and four years older than us. Now that Canyon View baseball is on the map and everyone is talking about us … people are calling us all the time … it’s putting pressure on these guys. We’re not free and easy and loose like we were.”
As Canyon View heads off to its biggest tournament invitation, Millennium contines its regular season.
Royal's team had its breakthrough tourney at the beginning of the season.
“We won the Wayne Decombes. That was awesome for us out of the gate. That was wins against Sunrise, Liberty and Verrado. That was awesome to say, ‘We can play with everybody.’”
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