Centennial's vaunted lineup did not stop hitting in its previous four games — three losses to region rivals and a close victory over unfancied Avondale Westview. But something was missing.
The Coyotes had lost the swagger and nonchalance that drove their 22-3 start. As their exploits gained more press and the team joined the short list of 5A-II state title contenders, Centennial began to feel the weight of its new status.
"I think that the attention we got forced us to lose our focus," Centennial coach Jason Nuttall said. "We started to put pressure on ourselves and we don't perform well when that happens."
Staring elimination in the face Tuesday, the Coyotes regained their loose, confident nature. Centennial (24-6) rode a six-run third inning to knock Willow Canyon (19-12) out of the playoffs with a 10-1 win.
"Coming into today the attitude was 'Let's have fun playing baseball,'" junior catcher Austin Arias said.
Arias had the most fun in the big inning. But nothing exemplified Centennial's return to form more than senior outfielder Stephen Holman's single back up the middle with one out in the third.
"Our nine hole guy started it in the third inning," Nuttall said.
From there, the Coyotes were rolling again. Senior Brad Williams doubled into left field. Senior first baseman Michael Pomeroy singled in a run. Junior outfielder Austin Garday walked to load the bases.
Arias stepped up and was patient. When he saw a pitch he liked, he blasted it up against the center field wall for a bases-clearing triple.
"I've been in that situation a few times this year," Arias said. "I got the pitch I wanted."
Nuttall said improved patience has translated into terrific RBI numbers for Arias this year. The three-run hit bumped the junior's season total to a team-leading 45.
"Anytime you have runners on base he can go to the gap," Nuttall said. "Now he's zoned in to what pitches he can hit."
Senior pitcher Todd Otra then plated Arias with a bloop single to shallow center field. Two batters later, senior Tyler Brandt gave Centennial a 7-0 lead with a RBI double to the gap between center and right field. This was enough to chase junior pitcher Josh Wonser.
As it turns out, Orta needed only the first run of the big inning. The senior was in control through five innings of no-hit work.
In his first five innings, Orta struck out six Wildcats, and allowed only three base runners. The lone Willow Canyon chance came when junior Taylor Erwin walked to lead off the third inning, and was moved to third base on two straight groundouts. Orta fanned senior Cody Anderson to end the threat.
"Hats off to (Orta) he did a great job," Willow Canyon coach Brandon Martin said. "He threw more strikes than we thought he would and it was tough for us to keep up."
Willow Canyon senior Jordan Goliat broke up the no hitter with a single in the sixth inning. Junior Chris Zrostlik double into left field and Goliat scooted home before Arias could make the tag off a wide throw.
That was the only run the Wildcats could muster on Otra, who has waited for this opportunity all season while working in a rotation with Pomeroy, junior Matt Perkins and senior Kevin Bell.
"Todd getting the start was what we needed," Nuttall said. "He's wanted the ball in big games all year long, but we stuck with our rotation. Now as we go on in the playoffs, all of our pitchers have had that experience in big games this season."
Orta received help from his offense in the first inning. Pomeroy doubled into the right field corner and reached third base on a pitch in the dirt to Garday. Then, Garday drove in Pomeroy to give the Coyotes a lead they would not relinquish.
In the fourth inning, Orta helped his own cause. With the bases loaded, he lofted a sacrifice fly to center field.
Centennial capped the day with two sixth-inning runs. Williams lead off with a triple to the base of the center field wall. Pomeroy drove in Williams and reached first on misplayed grounder.
Garday singled, moving Pomeroy to third. Arias walked to load the bases. Then Otra completed his own 3-RBI game by knocking home Pomeroy on a double-play ball.
Nuttall said Bell will start the next elimination game, at 7 p.m. Thursday against Tucson Sunnyside. Centennial appears to have regained its confidence as it attempts to climb out of the loser's bracket.
"I have a feeling we can do big things in the rest of the playoffs," Arias said.
Meanwhile, Martin bids farwell to Goliat, Anderson, Trey Clarida, Tino Luna and Brian Schuele — all foundation players for the relatively young program.
"Collectively, it's the best I've had seniors perform on the field," Martin said.
The coach believes his talented underclassmen can learn from Tuesday's game and the 6-4 loss to Scottsdale Horizon Saturday.
"We have a fantastic junior class, and they should be back here next year," Martin said. "Once you get a taste of this, it's a different atmosphere. It's a great time. We expect to get in and they should expect to go deeper next year."