West Valley Preps
GOODYEAR – Peoria baseball was proud to be there for the first time in more than a decade. Estrella Foothills was frustrated to fall into the game.
In this case, “there” was Wednesday’s 4A baseball play-in game at the Wolves’ ballpark in Goodyear. Two losses to Yuma Gila Ridge dropped the home team to this spot and they took it out on the Panthers.
No. 10 seed Estrella Foothills (23-5) scored in all four turns at bat, punctuated by a seven-run, eight-hit bottom of the third. They defeated No. 23 Peoria (14-12) 11-0 in five innings.
“This is a very senior-heavy group. Three seniors have been starting for four years and another two for three years. They have playoff experience without a playoff victory. The big theme this week was, ‘Don’t change routines,'” Estrella Foothills coach Patrick McCubbins said. “We changed our routines too much in the past two years.”
While this was the Panthers’ first postseason baseball experience of any kind since 2007, it also marked the occasion of the Wolves’ first playoff win since moving up to 4A three years ago. Sunrise Mountain knocked Estrella Foothills out in the first round in 2017, and Phoenix St. May’s Catholic stunned the No. 5 Wolves last year.
This time they left no doubt. Senior Justin Williamson drove in runs in three different innings, and senior Jacob McLeod punctuated the third with a bases-clearing double.
Now the program is hungry for one more. Senior Sam Cunningham pitched a one-hitter before giving way in the fifth to preserve some availability for Saturday’s first round game.
Estrella Foothills moved up to the No. 9 seed for the main draw when Flagstaff knocked off Phoenix Shadow Mountain earlier Wednesday. It will travel to No. 8 Prescott (15-9) at 4 p.m. Saturday.
“We have everybody (for Saturday). We went with our one tonight because he’s been our one and unfortunately on the losing end of two playoff games. McCubbins said. “It’s our third year of 4A and we were an out away from being in the double elimination last year. It would be huge. The bottom line is with these guys, if it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We want to figure out a way to hang out a couple more days.”
Peoria baseball fielded a young lineup for its playoff return. Cam Torres was the lone senior, joined by four juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen.
Fittingly, Torres got the only hit in his final game as a Panther.
“He’s our best hitter and a solid player,” Peoria baseball coach Shawn Sullivan said. “He helped change things here. Senior Jon Jones helped change the culture within our team, even though he didn’t play a lot this year. Ethan DiMaio and Xavier Sapien did too.”
His team made a 5-0 closing charge to get to this milestone game. They sealed a playoff spot at the expense of an eternal rival also in the midst of a rebuild.
Peoria beat Cactus 7-2 and 4-3 in its final two games to get in and knock the Cobras down to No. 29.
“I felt like we could get there with this team. We dropped a few early and that really hurt us,” Sullivan said. “We finished out 5-0 and that was huge, especially the two wins over Cactus. That’s a 50-50 game no matter who you put on the field.”
While Wednesday was a rough night for freshman starting pitcher Adam Flanders, his season ERA finished at 1.81 and this was his only loss. No. 2 starter Dennis Zanowick came on in relief. The sophomore finished the year 5-2 with a 2.37 ERA.
Beyond pitching, the underclassmen displayed grit that gives Peoria baseball plenty of promise. This team went 6-3 in one-run games this year.
“Once they came out and we saw what they had, we realized we weren’t going to roll over on close games. Last year we were giving up those games and this year we didn’t do that,” Peoria catcher Drew Gunnell said.