Tanque Verde qualifies for first playoffs since 2016 under new, yet established coach Tom Belter

Not since the glory years of the Tanque Verde baseball program almost a decade ago under Jim Lawwill have the Hawks had this type of enthusiasm and success.

Lawwill coached the program to 1A state titles in 2009 and 2011 and also reached the state championship game in 2010. The Hawks’ record in that span was 77-12.

Tanque Verde, which beat visiting Fountain Hills 7-5 on Saturday in a 3A play-in game, is in the state playoffs for the first time since Lawwill (now a social studies teacher at Sahuaro) coached the Hawks in the 2016 tournament.

“Tanque Verde’s been down for such a long time; they’re starting to believe in themselves,” said first-year coach Tom Belter, who is well-regarded in coaching circles in Southern Arizona for the job he performed at Empire from 2009 to 2018.

The Ravens reached the state championship games in 2010 and 2013 under Belter, who won 159 games during his tenure there.

Fountain Hills was one of those opponents that defeated Empire in the state championship game, a 5-4 final at Surprise Stadium in 2013.

“I told them this game was important to me because Fountain Hills beat my Empire team on a walk-off in the state championship game, so a little redemption,” Belter said with a laugh. “We’re having fun.”

Belter stepped away from coaching only briefly after leaving Empire. He became a social worker at Marana Mountain View High School when he was approached about filling the vacancy at Catalina in 2019 after Shane Folsom left to coach at Sabino. He coached the Trojans just for that season.

Belter was again out of baseball for two years until Tanque Verde called on him to fill its vacancy before this season.

He accepted the position and surrounded himself with a staff that includes Carlo Colombino, a former member of the Tucson Toros who has a long history of coaching locally.

The Hawks lost their first five games of the season before going 17-4 thereafter, including the win over Fountain Hills on Saturday.

“I’m very fortunate to get another opportunity to coach,” Belter said. “When I first met these boys, I knew they had something special, something that we could build on.

“Our goal from the first day was to make the state playoffs. These kids have overcome a lot of adversity, a lot of injuries, to get where they are today. I’m having a lot of fun with them.”

Senior third baseman Ryan Sanderson’s career is reflective of how the Tanque Verde program is undergoing a resurgence.

A four-year varsity player, Sanderson did not experience the state playoffs as a freshman because Tanque Verde’s power-rating points were “0.0001” short of qualifying, he said. His sophomore year was in 2020 when COVID-19 canceled the season. Last year, he suffered a knee injury that required surgery and kept him out of all but four games.

“It’s been a ride,” Sanderson said. “Ups and downs, lows and highs. It’s been fun. I’m glad that we’re here.”

Here is the state playoffs, where No. 12-seeded Tanque Verde will play at 3A South foe Pusch Ridge, the No. 5 seed, in a first-round game Tuesday at 4 p.m. The Hawks lost the two regular-season games with Pusch Ridge.

Sanderson was a catalyst in the 7-5 win over Fountain Hills on Saturday going 2 for 3 with two runs, two hits and two walks. His solo home run to lead off the second inning ignited a five-run rally that also included an RBI single by Mylo Gallego and run-scoring double by Terrence Oathout.

“I just wanted to win; this was the first time I was playing in a state (playoff play-in) game,” Sanderson said. “I wanted to go to the next round. I did whatever it took.”

The early lead was enough of a cushion for starting pitcher Trevor Carlson, a 6-foot-3 and 185-pound sophomore right-hander.

He went six-plus innings and did not allow an earned run while scattering five hits. He struck out six and walked none.

Carlson also helped his cause at the plate going 1 for 3 with an RBI.

“I was feeling great,” he said. “My defense backed me up for the most part. It felt great to have this opportunity to play.”

Given that it was a win-or-go-home game, Carlson felt confident of his ability because Belter and his staff allowed him to take the mound.

“It’s awesome because he trusts me and believes in what I can do,” Carlson said of Belter. “I went out there and did all I could.”

Fountain Hills made the game interesting rallying for three runs following a throwing error in the sixth inning. The Falcons again rallied in the top of the seventh, having the bases loaded with two outs and the go-ahead runner at the plate.

Tanque Verde first baseman Matthew Altherr, a transfer from Sabino, fielded a hard-hit grounder and touched the base for the second out and tried to get the runner out at second base by throwing to shortstop Jordan Hansen, who couldn’t apply the tag in time.

The runner going to third base got caught in a pickle, however. Hansen threw to Sanderson at third base and Sanderson applied the tag for the last out.

Belter said of Altherr’s fielding play at the end: “That saved us right there. It was a huge play.”

“I feel really good about our team,” Belter added. “We’ve just got to tighten it up a little bit. We had that one error in the sixth that led to three runs. Just clean it up a little bit and we’ll be okay.”


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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