Who’ll stop the Scottsdale schools?
Last year, three powers from the Northeast Valley took baseball titles: Desert Mountain beat neighbor Chaparral in Division I; Notre Dame finally took home hardware in Division II; and Fountain Hills won it all in Division III.
The powers are still powerful, but this side of town figures to have a bigger say in May. Mountain Pointe has an argument for being the best team in Arizona. Hamilton, Mesquite, Corona del Sol, Desert Vista, Highland, Perry, Mountain View and Red Mountain are either coming back or coming up.
Division II might still run through Scottsdale’s Notre Dame and Saguaro, but Williams Field, Campo Verde and Queen Creek will have much to say about how far they’ll run.
The season is well underway, but the postseason isn’t for another six weeks. That leaves a lot of time for surprises, shakeups and stories to unfold.
Players to Watch
Chase Beal (Queen Creek): The 6-foot-5 215-pound right-hander averages nearly two strikeouts per inning and is about to break school records for wins and strikeouts. He’s heading to New Mexico next year.
Nathan Chokey (Corona del Sol): The two-year starter is the lone man back this year for the Aztecs, and while the juniors and sophomore coming are pretty strong, they’d be wise to follow this hitter/centerfielder’s lead.
Isaiah Deutsch (Desert Vista): Sat out last year after he transferred from Brophy back to his neighborhood school, but has Pepperdine and others in pursuit while being a key part of underrated Thunder lineup.
Austin Filiere (Hamilton): The senior shortstop will play baseball at MIT this fall and joins Arizona State-bound Ryan Peep and junior Justin Wylie (San Diego State) to lead the young and talented Huskies.
Hayden Harden (Tempe Prep): The senior does it all as the Knights are off to a hot start. He’s already hitting .577 with 13 RBI and 12 stolen bases through three weeks.
James Harrington (Mesquite): Headed to the University of New Mexico, the 3B/P/OF teams with LHP Matt Heibult (Regis University) has nearly matched last year’s 19 RBI and has four HR.
C.J. James (Red Mountain): Hidden a bit by the Lions’ slow start and brutal early season schedule, the centerfielder/pitcher is one of two starters (Alex Sepulveda) on Ross Pagel’s team, which could be pretty good by season’s end.
Justin LaForce (Gilbert): The lone returner from last year’s 21-win season, the glimpse of his production last year (5 HR, 33 RBI) means he’ll be counted on in the middle of a new team this year.
Brandon Pollock (Campo Verde): Off to a fast start, the junior second baseman forms one of the best middle infields in Division II with SS Dylan Meachem as the Coyotes make noise in the division.
Marcus Still (Queen Creek): The speedster gave up football to focus on baseball and it’s working. Headed to Loyola Marymount next year, he’s about to break school records for runs and triples.
Ernie de la Trinidad (Mountain Pointe): The senior CF is part of a loaded lineup and a core group of Pride bound for the University of Arizona. He was invited to the 17U USA Baseball national team tryouts.
Cole Tucker (Mountain Pointe): The senior SS and U-of-A-bound senior won a gold medal on the 18U USA National Team.
Teams to Watch
Campo Verde: Senior pitchers Marcus Colegrove and Brady Miller (Western Oregon) are back from last year’s 21-6 squad with a good defensive IF behind them. Campo will see plenty of top competition in Div. II, Section IV.
Chandler: There’s a veteran core intact in Tony Sepulveda, Danny Vazquez, Hayden Durkiewicz, Austin Shumaker, and Kurtis Knoche who’ll have to lead the youngsters. If the Wolves make the playoffs, their schedule will have seasoned them.
Chandler Prep: With no seniors the past two years as a Division IV school with a new program, quick math says nine starters are back from last year; That means the playoffs are a serious possibility after a 6-18 season in 2013.
Desert Ridge: Bryan Rice left Desert Mountain amid controversy after 17 years at the school, and the Jaguars wasted little time in hiring the longtime, successful coach when Pat Herrera left for neighboring Skyline. Despite only four kids back from last year’s team - Jayden Eggiman, Cam Richins, Dylan Cook and Ryan Foster - the Jaguars have built themselves as a top competitor, and Rice’s arrival won’t change that.
Highland: Don’t worry everyone – the Gilbert schools aren’t going anywhere but up when it comes to baseball. Ryan McCord, Jake Brown and Austin Maltby return from last year’s 18-win team for coach Scott Cook as the Hawks seek a return to the playoffs.
Mesquite: Jeff Holland’s team has nearly all of its pitching and defense back from a 21-9 team in 2013 with seven starters and 13 total returners. The semifinals are eventually going to be in their sights.
Mountain Pointe: Led by Tucker, de la Trinidad and Jake Alexander among eight starting seniors, the Pride are locked and loaded on a state title with potent pitching and an excellent defense. Brandon Buck’s bunch are really good.
Mountain View: A 12-16 record was certainly a “down” year in 2013 for the Toros, but that won’t happen again with Spencer Moran, Kyler Kocher, Nolan Ross, Brent Bailey and Seth Nordlin pitching; Chase Anderson, Kyler Kocher, Conner Wise and Brent Bailey lead the lineup.
Perry: Good defense highlights the team’s six starters back from an 18-10 season with Kyle Huckaby, Brady Weiss, Austin Bull and Jeremy McCuin. Can the pitching hold up to get the Pumas back into the postseason?
Queen Creek: Coming off a second-round playoff appearance with eight starters returning pits the Bulldogs as serious contenders in Division II. Beal, Still, 2B Ryan Kottcamp and pitcher Josh Andrews will drive this bus.
Skyline: Pat Herrera left Desert Ridge and moved a mile down the street, which, in time, could be a huge hoon for the Coyotes. For the moment, however, a 3-26 season in 2013 is thankfully gone, and the rebuilding is already off to a successful start.
Valley Christian: Though short on experience, the Trojans boast an excellent infield with Zach Wolf, Riley Nelson and Ethan DeWitt. Can they return to the Division-III postseason.
Williams Field: Lost a record-setter in Skyler Wengert (Grand Canyon University) but four-year starters in Jeddediah Fagg (Nevada), Chris Kobar (ASU), Chris Quackenbush (Regis University) to go with junior closer/outfielder Jaxxon Fagg have Kraig Leuschner’s group headed toward “elite” status in Div. II. Aaron Stretch, a junior left-handed pitcher whose family moved in from Chicago, has a live arm and is off to a good start on the mound.
March 17-29: Coach Bob National Invitational (at various high school locations)
March 24-27: Horizon Invitational tournament (at Brophy, Corona del Sol, Hamilton, and Horizon high schools)
April 3-5: Wolves Classic (at Goodyear Ballpark)
May 3: State Tournaments begin (Divisions I and II double elimination; Divisions III and IV single elimination)
May 17: State championships at TBD (Divisions III and IV)
May 20: State championships at TBD (Divisions I and II)
• Family ties: Mesa assistant coach Jackie Reeves’s wife, Jackie, graduated from Mesa, and their son, JJ, is in Mesa’s baseball program. Another assistant, Tom Pagel, is the father of Red Mountain coach Ross Pagel, also a former Westwood coach who coached Jackie Reeves while at Westwood. Jackrabbits’ sophomore Nicolas Durazo’s mother and three older brothers are Mesa High graduates.
• Coaching carousel: The big changes occurred in the far East Valley. Pat Herrera built Desert Ridge into a perennial powerhouse the past few years, but left and moved two miles down the street to take over Skyline. The Coyotes don’t have a returning starter but already beat Brophy and nearly knocked off Mesquite. Bryan Rice’s departure from Desert Mountain was fueled by controversy but his track record is superb and the man hired to replace Herrera has an inexperienced bunch, but no shortage of talent. Steve Schuck takes over Marcos de Niza in place of Felipe Becerra. Schuck was an assistant for 6 years, and has seven starters returning for familiarity as the Padres try and build up from last year’s 3-15 record.
• Corona: Corona del Sol pitcher Garrett Poole won four games as a freshman on varsity, but suffered season-ending injuries for two consecutive seasons. He’s healthy for his senior season. The Aztecs also have a quality left-handed pitcher in Atreya Tadepalli, whose family is from East India. He is No. 1 (out of approximately 600) academically in the school’s junior class.
• Road trip: Mountain Pointe accepted an invitation to play in the nationally-renowned National High School Invitational in North Carolina beginning March 26.
• Do-everything kids: In addition to football, wrestling and baseball, Williams Field senior Brady Alexander ropes cattle during his (limited) spare time. His teammate, Adam Lamb, has won talent shows with his singing, guitar and piano accumen. He and Basha senior Taylor Graff could form a band. Graff has also performed at restaurants, coffee shops and recorded a few of his songs.
• Going pro: Chandler Prep junior Andy Hagberg recently got a job working as a dugout and clubhouse assistant with the Diamondbacks.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune assistant managing editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.