West Valley Preps
If a Desert Valley Region baseball team is feeling down in the dumps or thinking it can’t be beaten, that team would be advised to wait a week.
Seven days ago, Mountain Ridge was riding high after finishing 3-1 at the National Classic and winning the consolation bracket title. Meanwhile, Liberty lost three games against Arizona foes, watching its ranking plummet to No. 19 in 6A.
In the span of 48 hours, the Lions knocked the No. 9 Mountain Lions off twice and probably will be ranked higher when the power points are released April 15. Liberty held on for a 8-7 win at home Thursday and held off Mountain Ridge for a 4-2 win in Glendale Friday.
“We had a rough week and I challenged them. We had a practice that we got after it. They players came back more resilient and even tougher. We’ve been really tough physically and mentally over the last few days,” Raymond said.
Liberty (13-8-1 overall, 9-5 regular season) was rolling by the time of its road game Friday having already knocked off Phoenix Pinnacle 10-3 April 9.
The Lions kept humming in the top of the first inning. Sophomore Braden Lovett and senior Luke Pauga hit singles.
Then, Raymond said, junior catcher Kyle Lewis was unlucky on his well-struck ball.
“(Mountain Ridge’s Tate) Childers made a diving play over there in the corner that was one of the plays of the year,” Raymond said.
Alec Yamauchi followed with an RBI. The Lions tacked on another run and loaded the bases to chase Mountain Lions starter Mason Piert with two outs in the first.
Senior Zach Martinez entered in relief and controlled Liberty for several innings.
He is still working his way back to full strength and is on a pitch count. Fifth inning singles by Pauga and Lewis ended his outing with one out in the fifth.
“That was his third outing this week. Our big concern was him getting toward 50 or 60 pitches. His health is more important than anything,” Cox said. “Now we’re trying to see the result of him getting into shape. We’re starting to see the results of the work and he’s coming back again so we’re excited.”
By that time, the contest was tied. Sophomore starter Trevor Toland was in command most of the afternoon, bouncing back each time the Mountain Lions got a hit.
Mountain Ridge freshman AJ Singer laced a two-out second inning double just past the first baseman’s outstretched glove Toland answered with a strikeout.
The breaks went the Mountain Lions’ way with two outs in the bottom of the fourth. Junior Kyler Stancato hit a bad-hop grounder off the first baseman’s chest, then swiped second on a wild pickoff attempt.
Singer followed with an RBI double that appeared to glance off the third baseman’ foot. Then junior Jace Young smacked a double to the warning track in left center to bring Singer home.
Young gets thrown out trying to stretch it to a triple but tied the game at 2 entering the fifth inning.
“We thought we had some momentum going in. We’re young and still making some mistakes. They’re a scrappy and good team. They had a lot of energy and a lot a life to them,” Cox said.
Liberty chased Martinez and almost immediately re-established its lead against junior reliever Brock Peery.
Yamauchi drove in Pauga in on a grounder that ate up the shortstop.
“He was a player that we knew had talent but he got caught in between a lot of talent. He’s our hardest working kid. He and Luke Pauga are in my weight training class and it’s He-Man strength. Today on a game day, he power cleaned and front squatted 275,” Raymond said.
Senior outfielder Christian Contreras added an RBI single that hopped clean over the first baseman’s head and built the 4-2 advantage.
Toland took it from there, finishing with 13 strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings.
“I love watching him play because he’s just loose. He’s a left-handed pitcher to a T and he competes his rear end off,” Raymond said. “He executed the game plan. Our pitching coach Mike Schiefelbein, called a great game today. He’s faced Hamilton, Corona del Sol and Mountain Ridge – and we all know what a quality program this is – and he stepped up to the challenge.”
Both teams will need to do some heavy lifting to break into the top eight and earn a bye into the first round. Liberty finishes at Mesa Skyline Monday, home and away against Scottsdale Chaparral and hosting rival Sunrise Mountain April 19.
Mountain Ridge ends with a gauntlet, home and away against rival O’Connor, at Chandler Hamilton April 19 and at Pinnacle April 22. Cox said he is more focused on how his team finishes than its seed.
“Every year doing this, it’s about momentum,” Cox said. If we can with three or four going into the playoffs, I don’t know that the bye is going to make that much difference.”