Desert Ridge baseball coach Pat Herrera, one year removed from a 5A-II state title, felt like he had a solid club heading into this season.
Since the group was making the division jump to 5A-I, maybe it wouldn't be the juggernaut of 2009, but a team that could mold into a scrappy underdog.
"I told people before the year, if we get in (to the state tournament), I wouldn't want to play us," Herrera said. "I thought we'd be pretty tough to face. But getting the (No. 1) seed? That wasn't something we thought was going to happen."
But the program hasn't skipped a beat.
The top-seeded Jaguars went 25-4 in the regular season and have won their first three tournament games to advance to the state semifinals. They have stayed in the winner's bracket, and await the victor of Tuesday's game between Gilbert and Salpointe, teams
Desert Ridge has already beaten this postseason.
Despite the loss of stars Jake Barrett and Steven Bier to graduation following last year's title - as well as Herrera's cautious outlook - catcher Russell Vaughan said the players never believed that they would take a step back.
Five starters returned, and Vaughan liked the squad's mix of pitching, defense and hitting.
On March 12, Desert Ridge let the traditional 5A-I powers in on what it already knew, traveling to Brophy and blanking the Broncos, 10-0.
"It was kind of like a statement game of how good we were," Vaughan said. "We could beat any team, anywhere, in the biggest of situations."
Vaughan said the team knew of its talent from the start and just waited for a chance to showcase it.
"I wouldn't say we're cocky, but we're very confident in ourselves," Vaughan said.
Junior Scott Hoffman didn't pitch much last season, but has taken over as the staff ace following the departure of Barrett, who was a third-round Major League Baseball draft pick and elected to attend Arizona State.
Taylor Kaczmarek gives the starting rotation a solid 1-2 punch.
Kaczmarek is also dangerous at the plate, as he and Travis Flores have combined to hit 27 home runs this season.
Two seasons ago, the Jaguars lost their first round game of the 5A-II tournament and had to win "what felt like eight games" just to make the semifinals, Vaughan said.
By staying in the winner's bracket this year, the Jaguars have afforded themselves two off days while other teams battle each other, and have the inside track at making the state title game out of Pool A.
"The way we're hitting right now, I don't think anyone can beat us," Hoffman said.
But just getting there isn't enough. It's state title or bust for a group of players that has no doubts about its rank among the state's elite.
"If we don't win it all, it would be a complete disappointment," Vaughan said.