West Valley Preps
In the end, Kellis baseball’s 5A state title victory as the No. 13 seed was only surprising to those who did not watch the Cougars play in May.
From the start of the state playoffs Kellis looked like it belonged among more heralded teams – and then the Glendale school started knocking them off one by one. Michael Deardoff’s team eliminated No. 4 Buckeye Verrado, No. 1 Liberty and pinned the first loss on No. 5 Mesquite, the one team in the 5A field with championship experience.
“Once we got that win over Verrado under our belt, our kids started to believe. Their confidence rose and they were playing for each other,” Kellis Coach Michael Deardoff said. “I felt like at the beginning of the year we had a team that was good enough to compete. How good we were going to be depended on them maturing and coming together. They’re a really tight knit group. We played in close games all year long so we got into the playoffs it was second nature to us.”
In Tuesday’s final Kellis face off with its mirror image from the East Valley, No. 11 Gilbert Campo Verde. The Coyotes made it to Tempe Diablo Stadium by knocking off No. 3 Scottsdale Chaparral and knocking out No. 2 Phoenix Arcadia.
But on the big stage, only Kellis (22-11) looked like it belonged. The Cougars jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first and never let go, building the advantage to 8-1 and cruising to the state title by a 10-5 score.
“We started the season 6-6 and were scuffling offensively. In the second half of the season we kicked in. This is our ninth in a row and we’re the only team that didn’t lose in the 5A playoffs,” senior catcher Nate Young said. “There’s not a lot of doubt with these guys. If I don’t come through at times, I don’t worry at all. I don’t think no one’s going to get it done. I have so much faith in these guys. We support each other 100 percent.”
The Cougars jumped out early thanks to walks by Salazar and Young. Sophomore Sam Curran looked at a borderline 0-2 pitch with two outs and survived.
Curran singled the next pitch to drive in Salazar. Pinch runner Brett Kuest came home on an errant pickoff throw to first base.
Campo Verde kept senior starter Hayden Udall in after Jonathan Ornelas’ double to deep left and a walk. That proved a mistake when sophomore Justin Flebbe calmly singled to left to plate Ornelas.
“Justin and Sam started every game this year. They and our guys who were on JV last year started to play like varsity players. At a certain point, you’re no longer a sophomore on varsity. I would say a little past spring break is when we really started to click a little bit.”
Campo Verde (20-15) got one back in the bottom of the third, thanks to a leadoff triple from by junior Noah Schiefer. Salazar struck out two and almost escaped unscathed before senior Garrett Thornton drove him in.
The Coyotes would not get closer than two runs as even a Kellis mistake in the fourth turned to gold. Junior Damien McElroy scooted to second on a dropped foul ball but senior Zach Jocewicz bunted toward short and Campo Verde took the force out at third.
Jocewicz was left on first and swiped second on a wild pitch. Senior Kody Rhoads poked an RBI single into shallow right field. Salazar singled to the same spot.
Ornelas clubbed another double well over the left fielder’s head that rolled to the wall and brought home both runs. Now up 6-1, Kellis could exhale a bit.
Rhodes added to it in the fifth after another Curran single and a walk. The No. 9 hitter pocketed his second and third RBI of the night by tripling to the left field corner.
“With Adrian on the bump we always feel like he’s going to give us what we need, so we focus mainly on hitting. They had great pitchers but we went through them and hit the ball when we needed to. I couldn’t be happier right now,” Rhoads said.
By staying undefeated, the Cougars were able to keep sending Salazar to start on normal rest — four times in five playoff games. Though not as dominant as the two wins against Liberty, he cruised through the first four innings.
Campo Verde had its one chance for a rally in the bottom of the fifth as Schiefer reached first on an error and second on a wild pitch. Salazar regrouped to grab two outs before walking Thornton and allowing an RBI single to senior Ryan Chafey.
Two more walks brought another Coyote home and ended Salazar’s night. Ornelas came in earlier than usual in relief with the bases loaded and pumped three fastballs by the batter to keep the lead at 8-3.
“It was my second longest (outing). I pitched four against Sunrise,” Ornelas said. “I thought Adrian was going to be able to go most of the rest of the game because he did against Liberty time, but I was going to be ready just in case. I just went out there throwing strikes and force them to hit it.”
It looked like Curran added two more RBI by smacking a triple in the sixth, but the second Cougars runner was judged to have missed the bag at third. Again, the Coyotes scored two runs with two outs — this time after loading the bases with three singled and bringing home two on a wild throw to the plate.
Salazar added the final run by lofting a sacrifice fly. Campo Verde went fairly quietly in the second and a large Kellis crowd could celebrate.
“It’s great to finally get the recognition we deserve,” Salazar said.
In retrospect, he’s right. The 13 seed, one playoff win in school history and fourth place finish in the Metro Region made this group easy to overlook in late April.
But a closer examination of the Kellis regular season revealed seven of eight losses were by two runs or less and all eight were to playoff teams. Plus, two of those teams placing ahead of the Cougars in region play — Apollo and Tempe McClintock — made the final eight in 5A.
The program may have entered this year with one playoff win and it only happened a year ago. But Deardoff has built the Glendale school’s most consistent program, making seven playoff appearances in nine years with an understated disposition that allowed him and his teams to go under the radar — until now.
“Our coach Michael Deardoff deserves this. He’s put in nine years of hard work and it’s great to give him this, he deserves us giving our all,” Rhoads said. “We’re all comfortable with coach. He’s like family, like a dad or a mentor — and the greatest coach I’ve ever played for.”