Tempe — Wednesday night’s 4A baseball playoff game between No. 3 Salpointe Catholic and No. 2 Walden Grove had the entire stadium on the edge of their seats. In a late rally, the Lancers were able to tie things up to force extra innings, where they snagged a 5-4 win to advance to the 4A State Championship on Monday.
Despite No. 2 Walden Grove being ranked higher than No. 3 Salpointe, a loss to the Lancers earlier in the playoffs saw them advance to the semifinals through the elimination bracket. Because of it, the Lancers were given the advantage of being the home team in the game.
Both teams eased into things, with the first two innings remaining scoreless, as the action started to unfold in the top of the third. Senior Isaac Shiflet was walked to start things off and he worked himself around the bases where Milo Rushford hit a ground ball to right field to send Shiflet across home for an RBI single and a 1-0 lead.
Back-to-back pop flies from the Red Wolves would bring an end to the top of the third, sending Rushford back out to the mound and giving the Lancers a chance to answer.
Junior Connor Raetzman was walked by Rushford to start out the bottom of the fourth, giving the Lancers some momentum to build on. Junior Roman Basurto followed up with a double, advancing Raetzman to third.
A sacrifice fly by senior Owen Guest sent Raetzman across home to even the score at 1-1 with only one out. Senior Sebastian Valdez followed up with another successful bunt for the Lancers, reaching first base safely as Basurto advanced to third.
The action was enough to prompt a mound meeting for the Red Wolves as they attempted to get out of the inning without giving up the lead. Burke was next at bat for the Lancers, slapping down another single, this one to right field, for an RBI to give Salpointe the 2-1 lead before Walden Grove was able to pick up the third out.
Shiflet was walked to start the batting order in the top of the fifth and freshman Andrew Romo put down a sac bunt. With one on and one down, the Lancers made the decision to intentionally walk Rushford, putting runners on first and second.
With the pressure on, Damian Lorta was able to drive in two runs later in the inning with a double to right field. Red Wolves grabbed a 3-2 lead.
Lopez started off the sixth inning with a strike out and a ground out, looking to close out the inning in a dominant fashion but the Red Wolves weren’t having it, though, and Guillermo Metzler was able to pick up a double on a hit to center field. After walking Shiflet again, the Lancers convened at the mound for a meeting, where they decided to bring in senior relief pitcher Max Smith.
“It’s unfortunate for [Lopez] because he pitched his butt off,” Salpointe coach Danny Preble said. “He doesn’t get anything to show for it out of this game.”
Romo was next up to bat for Walden Grove, facing Smith for the first time that day from the box. Romo was able to snag an RBI single to extend the lead to 4-2 before a ground out ended the top of the sixth inning.
Smith came out pitching like a true closer in the top of the seventh inning. Throwing for a line drive, a ground out and a pop fly, it was a quick three-up, three-down scenario for Walden Grove.
Going into the bottom of the seventh, it was do or die for the Lancers in some sense. If they were able to rally back for a win, the Lancers would advance straight to the 4A State Championships against Canyon del Oro. If not, they’d have to play the Red Wolves yet again, putting added strain on the players while a championship berth was still not guaranteed.
“The tone’s always going to be good with these guys,” Preble said. “There’s no quit in them, which is evident from this evening, and the message is always going to be the same. Continue to compete, continue to have good at bats, continue to throw strikes, and good things are going to happen to us.”
Simon was first up to bat for the Lancers, where he was able to hit a high-flying ball that was mishandled for an error. Monreal followed with a ground ball splitting first and second for a base hit, putting two on with no outs, and junior Jaxon Greene was put in as a pinch runner.
Raetzman followed up with a fly ball to advance Simon to third base. During the next at bat by Basurto, Greene was able to steal second base, putting both men in scoring position. Basurto brought in a run on a grounder and Guest came up with an RBI single to tie the game up 4-4.
Continuing with his laser focus, Smith was able to pick up a strikeout for the first out of the inning. Sophomore Alejandro Martinez was able to hit a single to center, but it didn’t bother Smith as he closed out the inning for Salpointe with another strikeout followed by a ground out to end the top of the eighth.
Burke reached on a walk and the Red Wolves thought they were going to be able to turn a double-play off a grounder by Mauro Acuna but Acuna was safe at first, keeping Salpointe’s momentum moving forward with one out.
Coming in clutch yet again, White was able to hit a double to right field, putting Acuna at third with only one out. Deciding to intentionally walk Simon, the time was now for Salpointe to charge ahead and take home the victory. Stepping up to the plate, Monreal dazzled in the spotlight with a walk-off sac fly, sending Acuna across home for a 5-4 win in extra innings.
“We haven’t been in this position enough,” Walden Grove coach Murray Hicks said. “I’m not saying the moment was a little too big for us, but we’ve got younger guys and they got a taste of it and we had a chance.”
Murray also noted the long-standing athletic success of historic schools like Salpointe have had much more time to mature to that level. The Red Wolves are still in the growth stages, but constant competition against such high-caliber teams has quickly helped elevate the program and continue building its status.
“Our school is 11 years old,” Hicks said. “In our first year, we didn’t have a field to play on and we had 19 away games… We don’t have the history that these other schools do so we’re building it as we go.”
For Salpointe, the win gives the Lancers the opportunity to avenge the loss from last year’s state championship, where they fell to Mesquite 2-1 in a crushing loss. For Preble, it’s a satisfying moment, as he says the boys’ success on the field this year shows for all the hard work they’ve poured in since that moment.
“It’s awesome for the boys,” Preble said. “They’ve been working their butts off since we started our summer Memorial Day of last year. We talk about the last game, we make no secret about it. We expect to play in the last game, so the grit, the blood, the sweat and the tears that these guys put in, they’ve earned this. They really have.”
Meanwhile for Walden Grove, Hicks is still extremely proud of his squad for their tremendous efforts this season and how much they’ve continued to learn and grow.
“We capitalized a lot this year,” Hicks said. “We had a team batting average of around .430, and we know we can score runs. So you know, we got down and in years past when we were losing, it was like, ‘oh, well it’s over.’ Now it’s like, no, we know we’re good, and tonight is just a freaky thing.”
Hicks also noted the kids are fully committed to the program and have given it their all every single day. He said the kids understand the value of hard work, and they understand if they want to get to the top, it’s going to be a rugged path.
His eyes started to well with tears as emotions overtook him. Reflecting back on his time as a player, Hicks spoke of how he won his first state championship right there in Diablo Stadium for Canyon del Oro in 1979 before continuing on to play at the University of Arizona. To this day, the fun he had while playing is still what he remembers the most, and it’s what he hopes his players take away from their time with Walden Grove.
“I just want these guys to have a great memory of high school baseball,” Hicks said. “My time has come and gone as a player, and I want them to experience this and have great memories.”
No. 3 Salpointe Catholic will face off against No. 4 Canyon del Oro on Monday, May 16th in a battle between the two Tucson powerhouses for the 4A State Championship title. The AIA moved the game to Tucson, and it will now be taking place at Hi Corbett Field starting at 7:30 pm.
“I expect that they’ll be as prepared as they can be, as will we, and it’s gonna be a good show on Monday night from both sides,” Preble said.