Five months after writing one of the state's more improbable football championship stories, Thunderbird is back for more on the diamond - with many of the same players leading the way.
Only this time, the Chiefs are the favorites to win 4A-II. If there were any doubts, No. 1 seed Thunderbird laid them to rest Wednesday, dismantling No. 8 seed and defending champion Liberty 10-0 in five innings.
Thunderbird (26-3) features a blend of five starters who were on a 2010 squad that earned the No. 2 seed before being upset in the quarterfinals, three kids new to varsity but seasoned by the football playoffs and two that fall into both categories.
"The kids that came in from football have been in pressure situations. They don't buckle. You never see a sense that they're tight or scared," Thunderbird coach Seth Melton said. "Our seniors that returned from last year, they knew what it was like to lose in the second round and feel that sting."
Sophomore pitcher Eric Wagner has already pitched for two state playoff teams and kicked the winning field goal in the state finals in his short career. Wednesday, he added to the list by allowing only one hit in five innings.
He didn't overpower the Lions — Wagner had two strikeouts — but mixed his pitches well and piled up the ground balls.
"He's been our bulldog all year," Melton said. "Nothing he throws is going to blow you away. But he pitches, he hits spots and he competes. He's one of the toughest kids we have."
On the two early-inning occasions that Liberty hit dangerous drives to the outfield, Wagner's defense backed him up.
Liberty loaded the bases in the top of the first inning with two outs. Sophomore Cody Roose drove a ball to shallow center field, but junior center fielder Connor Hustead — the Chiefs star running back in the fall — flashed his speed to snag the ball and end the threat.
Sophomore Kyle Anulao started the second inning driving the ball to the warning track in right field. Senior Tyler Thomas reached back, caught and held onto the ball.
In between those defensive gems, the Chiefs bats started rolling. They hardly stopped, as Thunderbird failed to score only in the second inning.
In the first inning, senior John Everill tripled to the base of the left field fence. Junior Marcus Wheeler brought him home with a sacrifice fly.
Senior Matt Hobel picked up and infield hit. Hustead then capped his star turn by drilling a pitch to the terrace beyond left field.
"Us getting out of that first inning gave us a big lift," Melton said. "Then coming out in the first and putting three on the board really released a lot of tension. It just loosened everybody up. We said 'OK, we don't have to scrap, we can just relax and do what we do.'"
Thunderbird built its lead in the third inning. Hobel's single drove in a run and Hustead hit a sacrifice fly.
Wagner helped his cause by leading off the bottom of the fourth with a triple to the left field wall. Junior Robbie Barnes sent him home with a squeeze bunt.
"We're playing freshman in the field. We're playing guys all over the place," Liberty coach Mark Ernster said. "It's tough to overcome that in a state playoff game when you're playing against the top of the top. You can get away with it in some games, but when you're playing guys like this, you've got to be firing on all cylinders."
Liberty junior pitcher Nate Bannister picked up two outs to start the fifth inning. Then Hustead was hit by a pitch and senior Jake Sitak reached first on a throwing error.
Wagner homered into the left field bullpen, ending Bannister's night. Ernster said his ace's struggles were a tribute to Thunderbird's lineup, not to the eight innings he pitched in Liberty's first-round win Saturday against Arcadia.
"Nate was on full rest. He was fine, he's done that plenty of times this season," Ernster said. "I just think they have a great hitting ballclub. They're very aggressive. They don't take strikes. I tip my hat, Seth has a great ballclub over there."
Sophomore Nick Morgan came on in relief, only to see junior Troy Custer and Barnes pick up hits to finish the game. Thunderbird moves to the semifinals against No. 13 seed Cottonwood Mingus Friday.
Liberty turns its focus to next season. Only two seniors, Thomas Gillies and Connor Hall, played key roles for the Lions this year, and both missed a month of the season with injuries.
Hall's injury came in late April, so for the stretch run, Liberty started one senior, four juniors, three sophomores and a freshman.
"I hope it's a learning experience and the kids take it as 'I don't ever want this to happen again,'" Ernster said. "We've seen both spectrums now. We've won it all and now we've not. Hopefully the kids take that motivation and work harder and get in better shape in the offseason to play baseball next year."