In his first season as coach of the Marcos de Niza baseball team, Felipe Becerra remembers receiving a letter from Desert Vista coach Stan Luketich.
Even though the Padres struggled to a 12-17 regular season finish in 2007, they made the playoffs. That, Luketich told him, was the difficult part.
“I remember reading that letter to my players,” Becerra said. “He said to get our butts into the tournament, and then anything can happen.”
What followed was nothing short of incredible. Marcos de Niza was a buzzsaw, reeling off five consecutive victories to become an unlikely 5A Division II state champion.
“We played the five best games of our lives,” Becerra said.
The Padres and fellow 5A-II team Perry, along with 5A-I counterparts Corona del Sol, Dobson and Highland, will look to continue the trend of double digit seeds performing well in baseball postseasons.
Since 2007, 22 percent of the semifinalists in the 4A or 5A state tournaments have been double digit seeds.
In two of the past three years, a No. 15 seed has made the championship game in 5A-I. Mesquite did it in 2008 and Hamilton did so in 2009.
“It’s just baseball,” Hamilton coach Mike Woods said. “Mountain Pointe got beaten by Casa Grande (Tuesday). (Mesquite) got beat by Perry. Anybody can get beat. It’s just the game. Things can go wrong, and sometimes it’s not your fault. That’s why we went to double elimination, because everybody realized that a really good team could just have one of those days.”
While top seeds like Mesquite, Mountain Pointe, Desert Ridge and Hamilton have proven their worth throughout the season, they are also the ones with all the pressure.
The double digit seeds are just happy to be here, and can play with that reckless abandon.
Mesquite coach Jeff Holland remembers what it was like for the Wildcats in 2008.
“We found out the last day that, hey, we got in, so let’s take advantage of it and see how far we can go,” he said. “We didn’t have any pressure because no one expected us to win. Now that we’re (the top seed), we’ve got some pressure.”
Woods believes there is another reason why many double digit seeds make a run.
In most cases, an East Valley team drops because it went through a gauntlet of a region schedule and took some lumps. Injuries, bad luck or a tough stretch can sink a team quickly if they happen during power point contests, even if the team is more talented than the seeding indicates.
“If you look at the bottom, from 13 to 16, what you have is a team that finished in the second tier of one of the power conferences,” Woods said. “They have been playing quality teams all year. They might not have as many wins as other teams because everybody’s gotten beaten up. I believe the coaches all know who they want to face and who they don’t want to face. That’s the true seeding.”
This year, the top seeds may be breathing a sigh of relief as Desert Vista and Red Mountain fell just shy of qualifying for the postseason.
Desert Vista went 5-3 in its last eight games, including wins over Corona del Sol and Brophy.
Red Mountain had victories over Hamilton and Gilbert this year, and lost on a walkoff to Mesquite. Mountain Lions coach Jason Grantham thought his team could have made a run if they made the field.
“We played with those teams that are up top,” he said. “Anything happens when you get in. The seedings are pretty tight, not just 10 through 16 but one through 16.”
It won’t be easy for most of the lower seeds from the East Valley this year. Corona del Sol, Highland and Dobson all play fellow East Valley teams in the first round. In the past, early matchups with a Metro school or West Valley team helped spark a favorable run for lower-seeded teams. Marcos de Niza faces off with Anthem Boulder Creek, the top seed in 5A-II, which is 31-4 on the year. Perry, though, gets a nice draw against Yuma.
But no matter the matchups, don’t write these schools off yet.
“There’s nothing to lose,” Becerra said. “We’re not supposed to be here, so let’s just make some noise and crash the party.”