Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to spring. The weather is pool-ready, hike-worthy, and all-around outdoor-friendly. Just watch out for flying baseballs.
Another season has begun for Northwest prep sluggers, pitchers and fielders. And fans have much to be excited about.
With three of the five high schools making it to the first round (or farther) of the state playoffs last season, and another winning 20 before games losing in the regionals, local baseball looked healthy in 2008.
If the area preps have anything to say about it, 2009 will look even better. Here is what to expect from local teams in the upcoming weeks.
“This is how we’re going to win games — these kids are horses, and they like to run,” said Pusch Ridge head coach Doug Jones after the Lions opened their 2009 campaign with a 8-7 win over Desert Christian.
The Lions, the Northwest’s winningest program in 2008 at 21-4, gave the large home crowd a scare in their opener, going down 4-0 early to the Eagles before deft pitching by juniors Aaron Vaughn and Owen Bertelsen held Desert Christian scoreless for four innings. Those innings gave Pusch Ridge senior Joey Degroff, junior Alec Erceg and senior Dawson Jones the opportunity to knock in six runs. After a Desert Christian rally in the top of the seventh that brought the score to 7-6 in favor of the Eagles, waning light and a two-run homer in the bottom of the inning by Erceg brought the game to its conclusion.
According to Jones, his team’s ability to win games will come down to familiarity and a workman-like attitude.
“Our seniors and juniors have been playing together since junior high,” said Jones. “Maybe a couple that haven’t, but they’re comfortable around each other, they know each other better than some other schools’ kids might. That’s helpful.”
Pusch Ridge doesn’t have “a lot of rowdy guys, they’re down to business,” said Jones. “I like that kind of play, that kind of quiet leadership.”
That leadership will be essential for the Lions if they are to avoid a repeat of last season’s regional tournament ouster to Phoenix Country Day in the second round. While regional tournaments have little impact on the state tournament seeding of 4A and 5A schools, 1A/2A/3A schools can end their season with a regional loss.
The Lions return enough firepower on both sides to compete in a tough 2A South region that includes powerhouse programs like Hayden, Ray and San Manuel.
Erceg ranked second in the region with a .521 batting average last season, and Degroff was fourth at .500. Degroff also led the region in RBIs and was fourth in on-base percentage. Junior Matt Horagan ranked fifth in on-base percentage, but was dangerous on the basepaths, leading the region in stolen bases with 38.
On the mound, Vaughn ranked second regionally with a 1.20 ERA and fourth in overall wins.
The team’s goals are high, according to Jones, but the coach and his players know the season is a long one.
“Of course we all want to win state,” said Jones. “But you’ve got to play one game at a time to get there.”
That philosophy has led the Lions to an undefeated record after four games, outscoring opponents 50-14.
Canyon Del Oro
CDO senior Ryan Retz already won a state title in 2009 with the soccer team, and came close in late 2008 with the football team, but the 2008 all-state selection’s heart has always been on the diamond.
“I’m really a baseball guy,” Retz said.
The Dorados will need all of their “baseball guys” to step up to get Retz into another title game.
CDO went 20-10 in 2008 before losing 12-2 in the quarterfinals of the state tournament to Glendale Cactus. This season, senior Doug Steele, senior Griffin Ronstadt and junior Vicente Teran will look to provide offensive firepower for a team that graduated many of its statistical leaders.
Pitching looks to be strong as Retz and juniors Ryan Cota, Luke Parrish and Eric Gutierrez return to the mound.
Case in point: in a 12-1 mercy rule victory over Flowing Wells last Thursday, Retz and Teran combined to hold the Caballeros scoreless until the final inning.
The 4-3 Nighthawks jumped out to a 3-0 start this season before dropping three of the last four.
Last season’s Nighthawk squad went 15-15 and made it to the state tournament before losing 12-2 to Sunnyside in the first round. This season, Ironwood Ridge looks balanced in the field and at the plate – enough to give regional foes Sunnyside and rival Mountain View something to think about.
The Nighthawks return seniors Angel Amado (.393) and Kyle Kilgore (.392), who ranked fourth and fifth regionally in batting average. Senior Nate Wood, who ranked second in slugging percent last season, will also give Ironwood Ridge at boost in the batter’s box.
The Nighthawks’ pitching may be their strength, as Kilgore and fellow senior Derek Boris can blow the ball past opposing hitters, finishing 2008 third and fourth in overall ERA.
The Tigers have a lot to deal with in the 4A Sonoran division. Marana is 1-5 so far this season, including a loss to rival Mountain View 10-0 last Thursday.
Playing against dynasty programs like Canyon Del Oro and Catalina Foothills also proved difficult for Marana in 2008, as the team went 5-18 and ended the season with a four-game losing streak. Luckily for the Tigers, they return pitching and speed on the base paths that might help them compete in 2009.
Junior Danny Gallegos returns to the pitcher’s mound for Marana, and if his 2008 numbers are any indicator, he’ll make life difficult for opposing batters. Gallegos ranked second in overall ERA regionally with 3.92 last year, and second in strikeouts with 15. Another junior pitcher, Zach Schultz, was third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts.
On the offensive side, senior Santiago Miranda, second-best in the region in home runs last season, and Gallegos, fourth in RBIs, will hope to provide some power in the lineup. On base, the Tigers are dangerous, as seniors Justin Faust, Miranda and Josh Van Horn finished in the top five in stolen bases in 2008.
Baseball may not be Aaron Anderson’s only sport, but the 2008-2009 5A-II Southern basketball regional player of the year certainly has been able to switch focus easily. Last season Anderson, then a junior, led the region in batting average with a .417, came in second in on-base percentage, third in home runs and fourth in slugging percentage and RBIs. As a senior, Anderson rejoins a Mountain Lion squad that finished last season 16-10 and surprised #4 Mesa Desert Ridge 6-1 in the first round of state competition before losing to San Luis 1-0 in the quarterfinal round.
The Mountain Lions are off to a less desirable start in 2009, going 1-4 so far, with their only victory a 10-0 decision over rival Marana on Thursday.
Mountain View graduated much of its run-scoring from last season, so it will be up to Anderson, fellow seniors Patrick Kile and David Jagoditsh, and juniors Jamie Rodriguez and Robert Kallal to provide the offensive boost.
The Mountain Lions also lost two of their top three pitchers to graduation, leaving senior Andrew Faith (second in ERA, strikeouts and wins last season) to handle the leadership role on the mound.