Freshman pitcher, opportunistic play power O’Connor past Mountain Ridge for 6A title

Mountain Ridge's Luke Blachut collides with O'Connor's Noah Nithman while trying to place a tag during a 6A championship game against Sandra Day O'Connor on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

TEMPE – With Matthew Liberatore done in by the compressed ending stretch of the double-elimination tournament, an unexpected star emerged on the hill during the May 15 6A baseball title game.

Blood rivals Mountain Ridge and O’Connor had burnt out their pitching in games May 11 and 12 to win their brackets. Both Deer Valley district teams threw their No. 3 starters, ace Eagles freshman Barrett Skaugrud pitched like an ace.

Skaugrud tossed a complete game, recording six strikeouts and, most crucial, no walks in the 7-1 win at Tempe Diablo Stadium. He had backup from an opportunistic O’Connor lineup that was out hit 9-7 by the Mountain Lions but made their neighbor pay for walking eight batters and hitting two others.

“That was my favorite part. I didn’t want it to be close at the end to make a decision. He allowed his defense to make great plays behind him. We turned a couple double plays. He pitched to contact and that allowed him to go the whole game,” O’Connor coach Jeff Baumgartner said. “For a freshman to have that kind of poise says a lot about him. He beat Westwood, who is a good team, last week and competed against American Heritage (Fla.) which is one of the best teams we saw at nationals in North Carolina. There’s times that we prefer him. When he’s on and and he’s throwing strikes, he’s just going to let our defense work.”

No. 7 seed O’Connor (22-10) scored thanks to one of those walks in the opening inning. Junior Noah Burgarello got the free pass, scampered to third on sophomore Greg Bozinovich’s single and scored on a passed ball.

In the second inning, senior pitcher Mitchael Dyer responded by sending the Eagles down in order. No. 5 Mountain Ridge (22-11-1) hit Skaugrud well in the first four innings, but could only capitalize in the second.

Senior Preston Godfrey drilled a triple over the head of the right fielder and sophomore Travis Warriner singled to drive him in. Sophomore Brock Peery followed with his own single but was caught up on a line drive at first, essentially ending a promising inning for the Mountain Lions.

“We needed to turn it around a little bit,” Mountain Ridge coach Artie Cox said. “We walked too many guys tonight, that’s the key. We had all of our pitching (available) tonight so we felt really confident coming in. It’s managing the pitching that was the key thing. Once it didn’t work out, it was getting to this game and seeing what you can get done.”

Mountain Ridge’s Travis Warinner reacts after hitting a RBI double during a 6A championship game against Sandra Day O’Connor on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Seniors Jared Kampf and Jason Harayda hit singled to virtually the same spot in right to lead off the bottom of the third, but were stranded.Then the Eagles broke free thanks to some Mountain Ridge miscues.

Sophomore Colton Kucera reached on an infield single. After an impressive sliding catch of a short popup by Dyer, Kucera stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Dyer hit the next two Eagles batters to end his night.

Junior Zach Martinez quickly picked up a ground ball out but its location — almost straight down the first base line — allowed Kucera to score. Burgarello put O’Connor in the driver’s seat on a two-run single.

“Noah Burgarello had a clutch 2-RBI hit and Mason Skaugrud’s line drive up the middle to score two. Time and again, those guys are getting things done,” Baumgartner said. “It’s a testament to all of our kids and the work our coaches do with them.”

After Warriner began the bottom of the fourth with his second base hit, Skaugrud sent down the next eight Mountain Lions in order.

His older brother Mason, a junior, put the game away in the sixth. With two outs and the base runners going for broke, he managed a two-RBI infield single.

“They did a good job getting runs when they got guys in scoring position. We weren’t able to do that early to keep pressure on them,” Cox said. “And it kind of got away there. They got some infield hits and it was their night tonight. I tip my hat to them.”

Both teams were seeking their first state baseball title. And the intensity of this feud — between schools less than four miles apart — brought more than 4,200 paying customers to the spring training home of the Los Angeles Angels.

Baumgartner’s program ended a long wait after years of fielding contending teams that fell in the final eight. He is the only coach in the northwest Phoenix school’s 16 years and led O’Connor to a 2008 runner up finish.

“It’s been 10 years for us to get back. I told them that the opportunity of a lifetime only exists in the lifetime of that opportunity. You’ve got to take advantage of it then,” Baumgartner said.

Circumstances would not allow for the dream scenario of Liberatore pitching to Eagles senior Nolan Gorman, a close friend and fellow top 10 prospect in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. And the Mountain Lions mostly steered clear of Gorman, intentionally walking him twice.

Liberatore’s otherwordly senior season (8-1, 0.93 ERA, 104 K in 60 1/3 innings, opponents’ on-base percentage of .239) tended to obscure what the whole class of 2018 accomplished.

Liberatore was only one of many seniors — including Harayda, Godfrey and Jake Robson — that either played in or watched as the Mountain Lions reached the 2016 finals against Chandler Hamilton.

Cox was the pitching coach and part of the staff that former coach Lance Billingsley put together to lead the program’s rebirth and is in the first year as head coach. Now this graduating class has set the standard for Mountain Ridge baseball.

“I told him the key is to get here every year. This senior class has set the ground work for expectations of this program. I told them that if we do get the championship here at some point, they’re the guys that laid the foundation for it. I’m really proud of this group, they’ve fought all year long. This senior class has been phenomenal for us,” Cox said.

Mountain Ridge’s Preston Godfrey hits for a triple during a 6A championship game against Sandra Day O’Connor on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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