Taking a closer look at some of the bigger suprises in the 2017 AIA state baseball and softball tournaments. Video: azcentral sports
It was on Senior Night when the stars aligned, when Garret Thornton’s bat ignited a monster, when Gilbert Campo Verde’s baseball season took off.
The Coyotes began their five-game winning streak with a 6-5, 12-inning win over a Gilbert Mesquite team they had just lost to. The bearded Thornton hit two home runs – one that tied the score at 2 in the sixth inning, and then a three-run, walk-off in the bottom of the 12th.
“It’s been an electric atmosphere ever since,” said Shawn Dukes, the only baseball coach Campo Verde has had since it opened in 2009.
No. 11-seeded Campo Verde was one of two final four, unbeaten teams left in the 5A double-elimination state tournament with double-digit seeds and double-digit losses.
The other is 13-seed Glendale Raymond S. Kellis, which has made it through for the first time since it opened in 2004. This team is led by the glove and bat and arm of senior shortstop/pitcher Adrian Salazar, whom his coach feels is Player of the Year material for what he means to the team.
BASEBALL: State tournament scores, schedules
SOFTBALL: State tournament scores, schedules
“He carries himself with a quiet confidence that I think helps relax our players,” said ninth-year coach Michael Deardoff, who had six previous teams reach the state playoffs, only to bow out early.
Campo Verde and Kellis have been the two biggest upstarts of the baseball and softball state tournaments that conclude early next week with the 5A and 6A softball championships on Monday at Arizona State’s Farrington Stadium and the 5A and 6A baseball finals on Tuesday at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Upsets in the softball tournament, too
Horizon’s softball team had lost nine of its final 11 regular-season games and came into the 6A playoffs with a team batting average at about .250. Then, it shocked everyone, after winning a play-in game against Anthem Boulder Creek.
Horizon eliminated 27-win Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor 8-0. Later in the double-elimination tournament, 11-win Horizon ended 21-win Mesa Desert Ridge’s season with a 3-2 win, before finally falling out of the tournament after a 1-0 setback to Tucson.
But to reach the final eight was a huge feat for a team that didn’t appear to be going anywhere.
The same could be said for Boulder Creek’s baseball team, a 13 seed, that lost 13 regular-season games. The Jaguars won their play-in game at Yuma Cibola, before surviving a 13-inning, 4-2 win at San Luis in another elimination game.
They ended top-seed Chandler Basha’s season with a 6-4 victory, before another upstart, No. 8 Phoenix Pinnacle, eliminated Boulder Creek on Tuesday with a 10-0 win.
Pinnacle floundered late in the season, losing four in a row, before starting a five-game winning streak with a day-night double-header sweep of rival Phoenix Horizon. The Pioneers won one-run games against Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor and Basha in the playoffs, before losing 10-2 to Tempe Corona del Sol. A lucky hop that went over the fence for a ground-rule double in the final inning kept O’Connor from tying Pinnacle.
The big bounce-back win over Boulder Creek has Pinnacle in Friday’s final four, meeting Horizon at Diablo Stadium at 4 p.m.
In 5A, it’s been shock and awe by lower seeds.
Kellis bumped No. 1 Peoria Liberty into the loser’s bracket with a 7-2 win. Campo Verde knocked off No. 3 Phoenix Arcadia (5-0) and No. 2 Scottsdale Chaparral (7-3) on the way to clinching Thursday’s semifinal spot.
“We’re used to flying under the radar,” Dukes said. “We’ve always been the little fish in the big pond. But that’s how we want it.”
Campo Verde’s previous farthest run was last year when it was in the highest division and made it to the final eight of the double-elimination tournament.
Nos. 1, 3, 11 and 13 are left in 5A baseball.
‘Better have your ‘A’ game’
“It’s been a crazy year,” first-year Liberty coach Chris Raymond said. “I think if you look at those teams, Campo has (pitcher Hayden) Udall and Kellis has Salazar. If you play them, you’d better have your A game.”
Liberty lost to Kellis (20-11) last week with Salazar on the mound.
Salazar pitched the full seven, striking out seven, walking one and scattering eight hits in a 7-2 win.
That win gave the previous tough-luck Kellis team a break until Thursday, meeting must-win Liberty again. Kellis lost nine of its 11 regular-season games by two runs or less.
“Really, it’s just about coming together as a team and a belief that we are just as good any other team in the state,” said Salazar, who was the district’s POY, hitting .486 with 51 hits, committing just one error all season, and going 9-2 on the mound with a 1.94 ERA. “We’ve had a lot of timely hitting, great defense, and great pitching.”
Pitching and defense are the two equalizers when it comes to must-win games.
Campo Verde (19-13) has a team ERA close to 4.0.
But Grand Canyon University-bound pitcher Hayden Udall (5-1, 3.60) has been clutch when it matters most.
He pitched 6 1/3 strong innings in a 7-3 win last week over No. 2 Chaparral that got Campo Verde into the final four to play No. 3 Phoenix Arcadia on Thursday. Arcadia is another high seed that Campo Verde beat in the playoffs.
Campo Verde has been hanging in to last this long in myriad ways. To eliminate No. 6 Queen Creek, a team it lost three times to in the regular season, the Coyotes had to outlast the Bulldogs at the plate in an 11-8 win.
To bump Arcadia into the loser’s bracket, they got another clutch pitching performance from senior Austin Breazeale, who gave up just one hit in six innings of the 5-0 win. In a 7-4 “play-in” win over Tucson Flowing Wells, Breazeale gave up one hit and walked none in 5 1/3 innings with the four runs all unearned.
“I think we’re really a tight-knit team,” Udall said. “A lot of us hang out together, go places together, have lunch. We’ve come together in the playoffs with our abilities. We’re always keeping each other up to be our best.”
Udall makes sure nobody thinks beyond the next game.
“I talk to the kids before every game, ‘Let’s get past this one and worry about the next one later,’ ” Udall said. “Just play as a team and we’ll do good things.”
During the five-game win streak, Thornton was the man at the plate, collecting eight hits, driving in 11 runs and hammering five extra-base hits.
“I definitely think it was a momentum change in our season (the 12-inning walk-off against Mesquite), not because of one guy,” Thornton said. “But we pulled for each other at that point in the season. It was the right time to get it going.”
No. 8 Phoenix Northwest Christian, behind the hitting of third baseman Tyler Worrell and the pitching of Jarin Davis, went from an 8 seed in 3A to reach Friday’s semifinals. The Crusaders didn’t have to face the No. 1 seed, Holbrook, because No. 16 Tucson Empire stunned the Roadrunners 2-0 in 11 innings in the first round.
Defending champ alive as No. 10 seed
It’s hard to think of defending state champion Chandler Hamilton as an upstart, but it came from needing to win two elimination games in Tucson to getting to 6A final four as the No. 10 seed.
“The game of baseball is the great equalizer,” Hamilton coach Mike Woods said. “Anyone can beat anyone. We put ourselves in that position, playing sloppy baseball the early part of the year. We lost close games to some really good teams. We deserved the seed we got. But the kids had an inner confidence, a belief. They believed they were better.”