The single-elimination 4A baseball state playoffs begin Saturday and continue until two state champions are determined May 14.
Two teams from north Peoria earned playoff berths. And both Sunrise Mountain and Liberty have a legitimate shot at state titles. Here’s a look at who they’ll face, and how they got there:
SUNRISE MOUNTAIN MUSTANGS
RECORD: 23-5, 12-0 West Valley Region
RANK: No. 1 seed 4A-I. Plays host to No. 16 Copper Canyon at 11 a.m. Saturday.
TOP PLAYERS: Senior 3B Austin Byler (.539, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 22 SB) Senior P/1B Tyler Crawford (.352, 28 RBI, 8-2, 0.92 ERA, 70 K in 53 IP) Senior P/OF Steven Kane (.392, 17 RBI, 7-0, 2.44 ERA, 49 K in 51 2/3 IP) Nick White (.436, 20 RBI) Senior OF Tony Troftgruben (.385, 20 RBI, 11 SB)
SEASON REVIEW: Led by eight seniors and the pitching of Crawford, Kane and sophomore Seth Martinez, Sunrise went undefeated against Arizona teams until Monday’s 6-2 loss to Phoenix Greenway. The other four losses were to Colorado and Oklahome teams in the Best of the West tournament, and to two nationally ranked foes in the Hard 9 National Classic in Anaheim, Calif. To top it off, Nebraska-bound senior pitcher Aaron Bummer, the Mustangs’ hardest thrower, returned to the mound Monday from a broken foot.
“This senior group is going to have to lead us through these state tournament,” said coach Eric Gardner. “They know what to do. They do most of the leading for us.”
PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Sunrise Mountain and No. 2 seed Scottsdale Saguaro were tabbed as the top two in the preseason, and have looked a cut above the rest of 4A-I all year. A finals matchup is hotly anticipated, but nothing is certain in a single-elimination format. Sunrise always has the pitching, but the bats come and go with this group. Defense has been a strong suit, Monday’s five-error game with Greenway nonwithstanding. If the Mustangs don’t press at the plate, the school’s first state championship looks within reach.
“Pitching can only take you so far. (Greenway) was a great example. We gave up one earned run out of six. The team knows that, the state knows that. Everybody knows if you’re going to beat Sunrise, you’re going to have to scrap out runs.” Gardner said. “That’s what’s going to be the difference for our state run. Will our offense match our pitching, and will our defense match our pitching?”
RECORD: 18-9-1, 9-3 Skyline Region
RANK: No. 8 seed in 4A-II. Plays host to No. 9 seed Phoenix Arcadia at 11 a.m. Saturday.
TOP PLAYERS: Junior P/3B Nathan Bannister (.468, 3 HR, 36 RBI, 9-2, 2.74 ERA, 73 K in 66 1/3 IP), Junior IF Ryan Benedict (.538, 10 HR 48 RBI), Senior 1B/P Thomas Gillies (.444, 23 RBI, 5-5, 4.34 ERA), Junior SS Paul Panaccione (.462, 3 HR, 27 RBI, 14 SB)
SEASON REVIEW: The defending 4A-II champions returned their three core juniors and looked to seniors Gillies and Connor Hall for leadership. Still, several sophomores needed to step into major roles. Gillies missed the early season but came back strong, while Hall was lost to injury late in the year. The Lions were in the power points top five most of the year, until splitting their last two weeks with Buckeye schools Youngker and Verrado. That left Liberty tied with Verrado for the league title and dropped the team to No. 8.
“Starters have been consistent, defense has not,” Liberty coach Mark Ernster said. We have had to battle injuries, and losing senior Connor Hall for the season hurts. We have to play guys out of position and that is tough for anyone, especially for the playoffs.”
PLAYOFF PREVIEW: Liberty has the talent to repeat, but faces the toughest road to the title game of any 4A-II contender. Arcadia, with junior ace Andrew Naderer (8-1, 1.75 ERA) will be a tough out. Win that and No. 1 seed Phoenix Thunderbird is the likely foe. The Chiefs beat Liberty 10-5 April 1 and were the only team to rough up Bannister. Pull the upset and No. 5 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep could be the obstacle. No. 2 seed Greenway tops the other side of the bracket.
“We need to do a better job at making adjustments offensively, working on manufacturing runs better. We hit, but against good pitching we have to be scrappy and find ways on base.” Ernster said. “We have a very tough road, but anything can happen on any day. Good pitching, timely hitting, and solid defense can win any game.”