The two teams expected to be the heavyweights in Division II baseball this season met at Camelback Ranch Stadium in Glendale on Saturday for the right to play in the state title game.
And No. 5 seed Peoria Liberty (26-3) beat the battle-tested kingpin to the punch.
The Lions scored four runs on four first-inning hits and rode the arm of senior Nate Bannister to knock out two-time defending champion (4A Division I) Saguaro, 5-2.
"Nathan battles any time he's in a tough spot. He's a champion," Liberty coach Mark Ernster said. "Every team we've played this postseason is a great team, especially Saguaro. Every one of their hitters can swing it. We knew what Banny was going to give us. It was a matter of our offense executing and putting runs on the board and we did."
Liberty gets a second shot at No. 8 seed Phoenix Sunnyslope (27-4-1) in the title game at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Phoenix Municipal Stadium.
Bannister also opened the scoring, driving home junior Kyle Anulao with a double down the right field line. Senior Ryan Benedict — another four-year varsity starter — followed with a single to send Bannister home.
After Saguaro senior starter Alan Madsen picked up a second out, senior P.J. Catera poked a bloop double into shallow left center field. Junior Zach Johnston lofted a two-run single down the right field line to stake the Lions to a 4-0 lead.
Bannister sent down the next eight Sabercats before walking senior Reed Austin, who scooted to second on a wild pict. Senior Matt Morris brought him home with a single.
"I've been playing against them for a couple years in travel ball and club ball. So I know most of them," Bannister said.
Senior John Nimtz's grounder deep in the hole would have been enough to get him to first base, but senior shortstop Paul Panaccione saw Morris round third and threw to the base. Morris broke for home and slid hard, but junior catcher Cody Roose held on to the ball to preserve a 4-1 lead.
Madsen righted himself after the first inning, only allowing two hits the rest of the way. He picked up a stellar defensive play from senior Chris Akmon, who tracked down Bannister's fifth-inning blast at the right field wall.
However, a sixth-inning throwing error allowed the Lions to pick up an insurance run. Johnston hit a routine grounder, but the bouncing throw allowed Johnston to get to second base.
Roose hit a rope down the left field line to put the Lions up 5-1.
Tuesday, Liberty's four errors nearly sent them home despite Bannister's two-hit, nine-strikeout gem. Saturday, the Lions were on point as Saguaro's sluggers began to figure Bannister out.
Panaccione showed his range, snagging two late-inning ground balls and firing to first base in time to shut down the Sabercats (26-9).
"The second and third time around the lineup, they're going to know what I have," Bannister said. "I just concentrated on hitting my spots and the defense played well. A couple of plays by Paully there saved up, and a couple of balls our outfield ran down were just huge."
Saguaro made a seventh-inning rally with one out. Nimtz hit a bloop single and two pinch hitters followed with hits.
Senior Nick Lagusis doubled Nimtz in and junior Shane Stansbury signled to bring the tying run to the plate.
Bannister recovered with a strikeout and a quick ground ball to end the game.
While he gave up six hits, his second start at Camelback Ranch may have been better that his first given the power and depth of Saguaro's lineup. Plus Bannister threw a second complete game with just three days rest.
"The big factor that nobody knew is our first two batters (Austin Anderson and Zach Gibbons) broke their fingers Thursday and barely could swing," Saguaro coach Ryan Dyer said. "Not that it's an excuse, Liberty came to play. Bannister was everything he's billed to be. That's a performance he'll remember the rest of his life and he just got them to the state championship."
Eight seniors were in the Sabercats starting lineup Saturday and four of them — Akmon, Gibbons, Anderson and Austin — were looking to start on their third straight state title team. Saguaro had one state title before the classes of 2011 and 2012 came through. They've lifted the program to elite status.
"This class is unbelievable. They put Saguaro baseball on the map nationally," Dyer said. "It's a huge disappointment. I feel like I let them down because they're the most talented group you could ask for and they've got more heart than any group of kids I've been around. There wasn't one day they took off or one inning they didn't reach their peak emotionally."