Cole Bellinger pitched Hamilton to a 6-4 win over Pinnacle for second straight 6A baseball championship on Tuesday night. Richard Obert/azcentral sports
It was painful to watch Phoenix Pinnacle baseball coach Roy Muller descend down the dugout steps at Tempe Diablo Stadium Tuesday. Each step was slow and precarious. He sort of swung sideways as he walked, as if he was trying to propel his legs forward.
That’s what happens, I guess, after you undergo more than 50 orthopedic surgeries.
Muller will tell you Tuesday’s 6A state championship game against Chandler Hamilton wasn’t about him. And it wasn’t. But even after Hamilton’s 6-4 victory, it was hard not to be pulled to Muller and his story.
For 39 years – ever since he became Paradise Valley’s coach in the 1970s – Muller had failed to reach a state championship game. Go that long without coaching the final nine innings of the season and you think it will never happen.
But it finally did on Tuesday and the disappointment of the loss couldn’t wipe the smile off Muller’s face.
“It’s tough, a game like this but hey, no negatives,” Muller said. “I have nothing but pride.”
Pinnacle pulled Muller out of retirement two years ago. He wasn’t sure he wanted to coach again but he couldn’t resist the opportunity.
“Maybe God put me here for a reason,” Muller said. “Right place, right time, you know.”
As the teams strode toward each other for the postgame handshake, Muller and Hamilton coach Mike Woods shared a long embrace. The two go way back; Hamilton’s first varsity game ever was at Paradise Valley and Muller, Woods said, “was so gracious for me. He’s always been a great mentor.”
Woods has so much respect for Muller that he had a pang of regret even in victory.
“I’m sorry it had to end this way for him because he’s a great guy and everybody in the baseball community loves him,” Woods said.
Muller, 67, isn’t sure he’ll coach next year. He said he’ll take the summer to think about and see how he feels. Woods, meanwhile, will begin the journey to what he hopes will be his seventh state title at Hamilton since 2003.
“Trust me, I know how lucky I am,” Woods said.
Funny thing is, Muller will tell you the same thing. He may never win a state championship but after 39 years, he’s still in the dugout, taking those slow, precarious steps, teaching kids and making friends.
Sometimes, it’s not about the ring.
Kellis ignores low seed, wins 5A title
In early March, the Glendale Raymond S. Kellis baseball team lost three of four games. It finished the regular season with a 16-11 record. There was no reason to think the No. 13 seed would do much damage in the 5A Conference playoffs.
Except, coach Michael Deardoff knew better.
He knew that those three losses in March were by a combined five runs. He knew his team had gained confidence as the season progressed. And he knew that as long as senior Adrian Salazar was on the mound his team had a chance.
“We just had to learn how to win,” Deardoff said.
Give Kellis an “A,” then and let it stand for achievement after its 10-5 victory over Gilbert Campo Verde Tuesday in the 5A title game at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Kellis, after winning a play-in game against Glendale Deer Valley, won five consecutive games, ignoring its No. 13 seed and up-and-down regular season.
Arizona Interscholastic Association officials said they believe it’s the first time a No. 13 seed has won a state title in any sport since Phoenix Thunderbird did so in football in 2010.
“I felt at the beginning of the year we had a team good enough to compete,” Deardoff said. “How good we were going to be kind of depended on them maturing and believing in each other.”
As it turned out, the struggles Kellis encountered throughout the season steeled it for the postseason.
“We were playing in close games all year so when we got into the playoffs it was just second nature to us,” Deardoff said. “We knew what we needed to do in those games.”
Also, because Kellis never had to play from the loser’s bracket it was able to start Salazar four of its five playoff games. Give the ball to your ace often enough – Salazar finished the year 11-2 – and good things happen.
“We’re a different team when he’s on the mound,” Deardoff said.
Yeah. A state championship team.