West Valley Preps
MESA – All spring, the Sunrise Mountain and Nogales baseball programs watched each other warily from afar, each believing the other was its primary roadblock to a 4A state title.
They first met Wednesday night at Tempe Diablo Stadium and the defending champion Apaches played brilliantly with their backs against the wall, drubbing the Mustangs 6-0. #1 seed Nogales was upset by region rival Tucson Salpointe Catholic in the second round, but turned around and knocked out the Lancers after #5 Sunrise Mountain beat #8 Salpointe.
Saturday night at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa turned into the showdown both teams envisioned, just a round earlier than the expected state final. The teams battled into extra innings, both not wanting a special season to end.
Nogales (30-5) eventually brought home the 6-5 win in nine innings, largely due to its major advantage against the resilient Mustangs – the Apaches got to bat last.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge and our guys were up for it. The last two days, they talked with confidence. I will tell you – 100 percent – that they walked into this stadium with confidence that they were going to win. We were one play away from winning that game and heading to another state championship game,” Gardner said.
Junior catcher Mario Duarte singled on an 0-2 count to lead off the ninth and junior Fernie Rodriguez came in to run for him. A pickoff attempt sailed high and Rodriguez took second.
Junior Jared Kellerhals raced in 3/4 of the way home to make a sliding catch of a popup near the plate – and kept Rodriguez from advancing. But senior Sammy Legleu hit a walk-off single up the middle just past a diving Mustang.
“If it was a bunt situation we were going to go with (Alex) Ramos, but Sammy has just been plugging away all year. We kept telling the bench it’s going to come down to one of you guys getting a big hit. He was ready,” Nogales coach O.J. Favela said. “We’ve kind of been looking (at Sunrise) all year and were surprised they were the five seed. Once that seeding came out and we knew they were in (our bracket) we knew they were going to have to battle. It was a heck of the game.”
Nogales plays in its third state title game in five years Monday. The Apaches face another region for, #2 Tucson Catalina Foothills (25-7), at 6:30 p.m. in Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field.
While not wanting to discount the Falcons, Gardner has a hard time believing his team did not just take part in the game that decided the 4A champion.
“That was the state championship right there and you can quote me on that. I think the two best (4A) teams in the state just played. That’s not to discount Catalina Foothills, it’s just that the two best teams in the state just played,” Gardner said.
Nogales tied the contest at four in the bottom of the second inning and the drama did not really kick in until the sixth.
With Apaches on first and second and one out the Mustangs’ regular closer, junior Caleb Thomason, came in. Almost immediately, he induced a potential double play ball.
However, a bobble during the fielding and a slight slip off first base allowed sophomore Kenneth Jimenez to get to first safety and senior Marcel Bachelier’s run to count for a 5-4 advantage.
To give the uninitiated an idea of how difficult Sunrise Mountain (27-5) is to shake, consider that the Mustangs recovered from that gut punch – and were down to their last strike when they delivered the game-tying hit.
Sophomore Tyler Davis walked to start the second and senior Trevor Pruitt tried to bunt him over. But Fajardo threw quickly to second and – in a call that had Mustangs fans up in arms – the crew determined that the Nogales infielder lunging of second base to grab the throw still had his foot on the bag when he first caught it.
Senior Tyler Pruitt walked to join his brother on the base paths. Sophomore Gerardo Martinez entered in relief and struck out sophomore Jacob Stockton looking.
On a 2-2 count, junior Ethan Snodgrass fouled off a pair of pitches. Then, he hit a rope that landed in fair territory near the left field line and tied the epic at 5.
“That was one of the most clutch hitting performances I’ve ever seen, that at bat with the crowd going crazy. You’ve got a guy fouling pitches off and then he gets a hit to tie the game? That could have been the winning hit if we were able to turn two (in the bottom of the sixth) but we weren’t,” Gardner said. “But that’s baseball, man. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ll remember this season forever and … it’s good, man.”
Neither team threatened in extra innings until Nogales scored – partially thanks to Tyler Pruitt laying out at shortstop to snag junior Alec Acevedo’s liner.
Meanwhile, Martinez only allowed a Tyler Pruitt infield single deep in the hole with two outs in the ninth.
“He’s like 6-0 or 7-0 this year. He’s just been one of those guys that throws strikes and keeps people off balance. They never really squared the ball up on him,” Favela said.
Most of the night’s scoring came in the first two innings, as neither team blinked.
The defending champs brought their bats from Wednesday with them. Junior Ricky Maytorena singled to lead off the bottom of the first and with one out, Pruitt hit senior Kevin Jimenez with a pitch.
Acevedo drove both in, drilling a triple that bounced off the center field fence. Senior Marcel Bachelier followed with a sacrifice fly to left for a 3-0 Apaches lead after one.
Immediately, the Mustangs struck back. Junior Jaret Kellerhals and Caleb Thomason started the second with back-to-back singles and Kellerhals slid in safe at third on Thomason’s hit.
Senior E.J. Sua followed with an RBI single to center. After a strikeout, Thomason and Sua advanced to second and third on a pitch in the dirt.
Trevor Pruitt walked and Tyler Pruitt followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 3-2. Sophomore Jacob Stockton and junior Ethan Snodgrass each hit RBI singles with two outs and Sunrise Mountain led 4-3.
“We told our guys before the game started that they were going to have to roar like a lion and we were going to have to roar back. Instead of running away from a lion, we were going to have to run into it, and we did,” Gardner said. “Time and time again, guys clutched up and made plays. The coaching staff made the adjustments early that totally changed the game.”
The next at bat probably set the game on its course to extra innings.
Junior Noah Thompson lined a pitch to shallow right field and junior Mikey Gerardo made a diving catch, ending the inning and saving the Apaches from at least a 6-3 deficit.
“It was a huge play. It’s a game of inches. We catch that. They miss the one in the ninth inning. Luckily for us, it went our way,” Favela said.
The umpires met after the play to make sure Gerardo got his glove under the ball, and ruled he did. That call – not the one in the seventh inning – was the one Gardner lamented after the game.
“In the second, I believed the kid trapped the ball in right field. It was a great, great play but if it drops we score two runs,” Gardner said. “You’ve got to get breaks. Winning a state championship is really hard to do – I know. Credit to them. And if they pull this off, winning it back-to-back years, it’s an unbelievable accomplishment.”
Thursday afternoon, the Arizona Interscholastic Association moved the site of the 4A title game from Hohokam to Hi Corbett, with the rationale that Catalina Foothills was undefeated in state tournament play.
Favela said he knew the AIA would move the game to Tucson if his team won Saturday, but changing the venue before the matchup was certain was unprecedented to him. Last season – although it was a single-elimination bracket – the final against Salpointe moved to Hi Corbett once both teams advanced.
“I was really surprised that they already moved it. It was never discussed with the coaches,” Favela said.
Garndner said he and his team “absolutely,” used the early venue change as motivation and a sign of disrespect.
“They basically were saying, in our opinion, that Nogales was going to the championship. And rightfully so, maybe (the AIA) felt like they beat us the way they did Wednesday that it was they way it would be,” Gardner said. “Crazy stuff.”
Sunrise Mountain was the state runner up in 5A-Division II in 2006 and 2008 and Division II (basically a mix of current 5A and 4A teams) in 2011.
So, technically, the 2018 team was not the program’s best. But Gardner, the only coach in Mustangs history, said in many ways this is his favorite team.
“It’s bad for our seniors because they worked so hard. Arguably, it’s one of the best senior classes I’ve ever had. I think record-wise it’s the best team I’ve ever had,” Gardner said. “It was the best season I’ve had in my career. I’m 21-plus season in and this was the best I’ve had. I feel the best about it. I know we came up short and didn’t make it to the finals, but I would tell you that this team played like a state championship team all year long.”