There are few things Liberty's baseball program hasn't accomplished in its first three years.
After Tuesday's 4-2 victory over Desert Edge at the Peoria Sports Complex, the Lions can cross one item off their short list and take a major step toward meeting another goal.
The defending 4A-II state champions had not solved the pesky Scorpions until Saturday, losing their first three matchups, including a 4-3 defeat at Desert Edge (15-9, 6-2 Skyline Region) Tuesday. Liberty (12-7-1, 3-1) lost out on a region title in 2010 when it was swept by the Scorpions.
"It definitely felt good, especially since we haven't been able to beat them in the past," junior catcher Ryan Benedict said. "But we had a lot of confidence coming in, because we had Banny on the mound and we came out with a lot more intensity."
The Lions nearly sealed a win in the bottom of the first. Junior Paul Panaccione led off with a single and senior Connor Hall bunted him over to second.
Then junior pitcher Nathan Bannister helped his own cause. He fouled of five two-strike pitches from senior Matt Decker and worked the count full. Then, Bannister laced a double over the left fielder's head to bring Panaccione in.
Benedict hit the very next pitch to the same spot, only further. His two-run blast landed in the left field bullpen and gave the Lions a 3-0 lead.
"I was actually looking to the right side, because that's what he was throwing, but then he gave me a good pitch middle in o I just got my hands through and put it out," Benedict said. "I've been here since I was in little league watching games so it was cool."
Senior Thomas Gillies' triple to the right field corner threatened to break the game wide open, but Liberty, as it would for the rest of the night, failed to bring home a runner in scoring position.
Hall reached first base on an error with two outs in the bottom of the second. Then Bannister singled and Hall came all the way around on a fielding error.
In the early innings, it didn't appear Bannister needed an insurance run. He did not give up a hit until the fourth inning.
Desert Edge senior Tanner Lung singled, and a rally seemed imminent as senior Travis Decker poked a low fly ball to shallow center. But sophomore Kyle Anulao made a diving catch and threw out Lung at first.
"Kyle's catch was a game changer. If that ball drops, they've got first and second with no outs," Liberty coach Mark Ernster said. "He had that same ball on Tuesday night and he missed it. Tonight we told him, 'I want you laying out.' He did exactly what he needed to do and made an outstanding play."
Senior Steven Moore's subsequent single only magnified the importance of Anulao's grab. Liberty ended the inning by catching a popup.
Bannister rebounded to strike out three of the four batter he faced in the fifth. But the Lions could not build their lead.
Junior P.J. Catera was stranded after his one-out double in the third. Hall reached second in the fourth. Then Liberty loaded the bases with three walks in the bottom of the sixth. Two fly balls later, Desert Edge was out of the jam.
"Right now, we're really struggling in those key situations. We're not getting the hit that we need. We're hitting a fly ball in the infield," Ernster said. "Little things like that are the difference between a great club and an average club."
The poor situational hitting nearly bit the Lions in the sixth inning. Senior Tanner Stokley and Lung led off with singles and Travis Decker drew a walk.
Moore's sacrifice fly ended the shutout. Then Decker was caught stealing.
Senior Adrian Figueroa kept the pressure on with an RBI single. Bannister then allowed a walk but struck out junior Marcos Garcia to stop the threat.
Again, Bannister seemed unfazed following a rough inning — or a rough outing. Thunderbird tagged Liberty's ace with his only loss Friday. He polished off his complete game win with a seventh-inning strikeout, pop fly and a routine grounder.
"The sign of a good pitcher is how you handle adversity, how you handle a loss," Ernster said. "Nate showed tonight that he's going to overcome that. He worked harder than he's ever worked in the past week. He got the ball down today and showed his competitive spirit."