Title in hand, Liberty ready for state’s toughest baseball region

The Liberty Baseball team celebrates after their 5A championship game win against Verrado on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

If the Liberty baseball team and coaches looked back at the Tempe Diablo Stadium field after the celebration of the 5A state title Tuesday night, the Lions received a glimpse of their future.

Mountain Ridge and O’Connor were warming up for the 6A finals. Those schools squared off with the Lions regularly from 2014-16 in the state’s big school division for baseball.

And those three schools, plus Sunrise Mountain, are close enough geographically to be in competition for the same talent pool, west of Interstate 17 and north of Loop 101. As this season showed — two state champions, one runner up, one third place team — the Northwest Valley is Arizona’s baseball hotbed.

“One thing I really want to say is about Northwest Valley baseball. Eric Gardner is here today to cheer me on. He was important to me in my life in a lot of ways, molding me into a head coach. Jeremy Neville is the third base coach for Ridge. We coached together for a club. (O’Connor coach) Jeff Baumgartner’s son played football with our kid.” Liberty coach Chris Raymond said. “I think it’s awesome. We’ve got a lot of good guys on our side of town. That (Liberty, Mountain Ridge, O’Connor and Sunrise Mountain) would make a really fun tournament to watch. I think it’s a tribute to our community. Tonight we’re going to get on the bus and go, but I would love to stay and watch this game.”

He and his team will get an eyeful next year. Liberty joins the loaded Desert Valley Region which, after jockeying with the Chandler-centric Premier Region for the title of best baseball region in the state, pulled away this year.

The loop could be even tougher next year with Liberty and perennial contender Scottsdale Chaparral replacing Scottsdale Desert Mountain and Phoenix Horizon. Plus 2017 6A runner up Phoenix Pinnacle will seek redemption following a playoff upset.

It will be Raymond’s first time through this gauntlet, but former coach John Freitas led the Lions to the 2015 Division I title game, beating Mountain Ridge to get there. In 2016, all four of these schools were in a region for the only time and the Mountain Lions finished as state runners up.

Ironically, Sunrise Mountain essentially takes Liberty’s spot in a Peoria Unified School District-dominated 5A region with Centennial, Ironwood and Kellis.

Liberty’s Chandler Murphy throws a pitch during a 5A championship game against Verrado on Tuesday, May 15, 2018 at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
While Liberty and Kellis never played in the same region, the Cougars were very much in the Lions’ thoughts during their playoff run.Liberty entered the 2017 playoffs as a dominant top seed, only to run into the roadblock of Kellis pitcher Adrian Salazar — who beat the Lions twice en route to the Cougars’ championship.

That was on the minds of Lions’ players this May far more than winning a 5A title before moving up.

“A title’s a title but it made it so much sweeter. The redemption was good,” junior Luke Pauga said.

Going back to back is not out of the question. O’Connor loses future Major League Baseball first rounder Nolan Gorman but returns a significant portion of it’s lineup.

Eagles ace Mitchell DeCovich also graduates, though freshman Barrett Skaugrud looked more than capable of stepping in based on the 6A final. And Arizona’s best pitcher, Mountain Ridge senior Matthew Liberatore, will soon join Gorman as a MLB millionare.

So Liberty has a leg up on its new region rivals. Junior Chandler Murphy, committed to pitch for the University of Arizona for more than a year, will be the region’s best pitcher from the moment he enters it.

“Next year, we can achieve what we want as long as we buy in,” Murphy. “We bonded really well this year.”

Pauga is the only regular that will be back in the batting order, though at .361 with 27 RBI he is not a bad place to start. Junior Jeremy Davidson and sophomore and sophomore Kyle Lewis also received starts in the playoffs.

But the ability of the 2018 lineup to come together at midseason, following heavy graduation losses and an 8-7 start gives the younger players confidence.

“We know we have some work to do. We’re going to be the leaders we need to be. We’re going to be grinding again,” Pauga said.

Liberty’s Luke Pauga hits for a single against Cienega on Saturday, April 28, 2018 at Liberty High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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