Mountain Ridge rally eliminates defending champs, neighborhood rival

Mountain Ridge junior Travis Warriner readies for the next pitch during a 6A baseball first round game at O'Connor High School in Phoenix April 27. Thanks to a seven-run, two-inning rally, the Mountain Lions upset the No. 3 seed Eagles 8-7. [Courtesy Curtis Finch PhD Twitter]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

History, psychology and basic math were against Mountain Ridge baseball for much of its 6A first round game Saturday afternoon.

But in the final innings the Mountain Lions swung momentum to their side. And once this team gets rolling, it is capable of almost anything – even a win against its neighborhood nemesis, which happens to be the defending state champion.

Trailing No. 3 seed O’Connor 7-1 entering the sixth inning at the Eagles’ home field, No. 14 Mountain Ridge shocked everyone not wearing burgundy. The Mountain Lions scored three in the sixth and four more in the seventh, then held on for the 8-7 win in this elimination game.

“It means a lot. It was exciting to get to play against them and finally come out on top,” Mountain Ridge junior catcher Garrett Olson said.

Olson hit what turned out to be the game winner, moments after another huge hit by unflappable freshman A.J. Singer. And all of it came against the young pitcher responsible for so much Mountain Lions misery last spring.

Barrett Skaugrud threw a complete game in the Eagles 7-1 victory over the Mountain Lions in the 2018 6A state title game. Almost a year later, he entered in relief for the seventh with a 7-4 lead.

O’Connor had four straight wins in this rivalry, including the championship game and a season sweep April 16 and 18. The Eagles even led 7-1.

“We’ve taken our lumps and there’s only one way out of taking lumps. That’s fighting back,” Cox said. “It’s always a fun game with these guys. They’re all neighborhood friends who went to the same junior high and played together in little league. When you’re playing your friends, it gets a little more heated. But it’s always a good game with these guys. They’ve got a good club.”

So it’s good that the driving force of the Mountain Ridge rally only had some experience with the Eagles’ recent dominance. After juniors Brock Peery and Keegan Stancato and senior Tate Childers all hit singles to load the bases in the sixth, Singer roped a two-run double to deep left field.

Then he produced a near-carbon copy in the seventh. Junior Ryan Ellis led off with a walk, then following an out Stancato walked and Childers was hit by a pitch to fill the bags for Singer again.

This time his double was more toward the left field line. But the result was the same. Two runs scored and O’Connor’s lead shrunk to 7-6.

“I think in the beginning of the game we were all a little nervous. But I settled in and it ended up working out,” Singer said. “We just need momentum. It doesn’t matter about the regular season.”

The crowd barely had time to recover when Olson smacked another two-run double, this one down the right field line. Now it was 8-7.

Olson also added what turned out to be a crucial run with a sixth inning sacrifice fly.

“When they brought Barrett in I knew he liked to get in on the righties and away from the lefties, so I told A.J. to just sit on the plate and that’s what we did,” Olson said.

Suddenly Peery, who entered in relief the sixth to keep the contest close, was thrust into his ideal role by the rally. The sidearm pitcher recorded six saves in the regular season.

He allowed a one-out Brendt Morgan single but otherwise clamped down on the Eagles, finishing the upset with a strikeout.

“Brock Peery was what he’s been all year this year. He’s been lights out for us. That’s our goal to get the game to him,” Cox said.

It was a stunning role reversal. O’Connor (17-10) appeared in complete command until the sixth.

Senior Amari Bartee was hit by a pitch. Sophomore Chase Valentine followed with a single that drove Bartee to third and Valentine dashed far enough past first to bait a throw.

The throw sailed wide, allowing Bartee to score and Valentine to motor to third. Senior Mason Skaugrud followed with an RBI single to right.

Junior Colton Kucera singled, before Mountain Ridge junior pitcher Zach Rogers regrouped with a strikeout and double play ball to limit the damage to two runs.

Two walks and another pitch hitting Bartee loaded the bases, and Valentine walked to bring home a third run. Sophomore Cayden Collins came on in relief and escaped with the score still 3-0.

“We try to limit innings and they both did a good job of stopping the bleeding. They were scoring run in pretty much every inning. We gave ourselves a chance to right back,” Cox said. “That’s not a typical Zach Rogers start and he’ll be really good the next time out. Cayden Collins did great.”

Stancato drove in the Mountain Lions’ first run in the top of the fourth. Mason Skaugrud boosted the home team’s lead to 5-1 by blasting a towering two-run homer over the right field fence.

Morgan doubled in the fifth and scored on a combination of junior Noah Nithman’s single and an error. Valentine then knocked in the Eagles’ seventh run.

“We’re up 7-1 going into the sixth with our top two pitchers and we just fell off. That happens sometimes. I tell these guys if you compete in baseball enough you’re going to be on the wrong side of it sometimes,” O’Connor coach Jeff Baumgartner said. “Last Thursday we were up 6-0 and (Mountain Ridge showed us they were going to fight the whole way (in a 6-3 loss). So we weren’t surprised. That’s a good ballgame and I’m happy for them. They’re good kids.”

As Mountain Ridge (15-13) has shown all season however, it does not need much momentum. Five straight losses erased the Mountain Lions’ good vibes following a consolation bracket title in the National Classic in Orange County.

Beating Phoenix Pinnacle 3-2 in the final regular season game seemed to reset the team. Senior pitcher Zach Martinez added to the fire with a 6-0 complete-game shutout of Phoenix Brophy College Prep in a April 24 play-in game.

“Coach Noah Peery called a real good game on them today,” Cox said. “Every season you always have a turnaround game and (Pinnacle) was the game. It was huge for us to win that game and we went into Brophy and Zach was huge. And this is going to be a huge win for us.”

Now the Mountain Lions roll into the double-elimination portion of the bracket. They will play No. 6 Chandler Basha (16-9) at 4 p.m. April 30 at HoHokam Stadium, 1235 N. Center St. in Mesa.

Their rival can only remember the Class of 2019 and the role it played in the 2018 championship. And the Eagles can hope history repeats itself.

“To win the championship last year, we needed to fail a couple years before. We needed to see and feel what it was like to not get in the stadiums. That really burnt for us last year,” Baumgartner said. “When things like this happen, you just figure maybe this is just going to spark us next year.”

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