Northwest Christian clinches title in big 7th inning

The Northwest Christian baseball team celebrates after their win against Safford in a 3A championship game May 13, at Surprise Stadium. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

In about five minutes of Saturday night’s 3A baseball final at Surprise Stadium, Northwest Christian  to cruise control

Entering the seventh inning tied 1-1 with No. 6 seed Safford, the No. 8 Crusaders struck against a tiring pitcher and a reliever for five runs. Junior catcher Logan Ripple all but clinched yjctory on a bases-clearing double to deep left field.

“I didn’t see very many curveballs, pretty much just fastballs. I decided I was going to get more and just waited for my pitch,” Ripple said

The Bulldogs got one back in their last chance at bat but Northwest Christian (22-9) claimed his second state title in three years by a 6-2 score.

Junior pitcher Gabe Ornelas started to labor in the seventh, walking sophomore Max Nebel. Fellow sophomore Dusty Inness bunted him over.

Senior Bubba Ponce broke the tie when two Safford outfielders crashed into each other in right center and dropped his drive. A misplay of the low relay throw allowed Nebel to score.

“As the game went on, we started to put together good at bats. In the fourth or fifth inning, we started made his pitch count go up. Good at bats and more pitches is going to affect his stamina. Sure enough, in the seventh we got to him,” Northwest Christian Coach JC McKee said.

Two walks — one intentional, one not — ended Ornelas’ night. Ripple knocked in all three runners against junior reliever Curtis Bevens.

Ripple then scored an insurance run. Safford (22-8) senior Tevin Broadhead singled, stole second and scored on senior Walker Lewis’ infield single.

Northwest Christian’s Jarin Davis (#18) scores on a single by teammate Zac Driscoll (#8) against Safford in a 3A championship game May 13, 2017 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

But senior reliever Tyler Worrell shut the door and a team that started the season 1-7 — though the first four losses were in a preseason tournament — won 16 of its final 17 games in the regular season and the playoffs. A roster receiving contributions from five juniors and four sophomores came of age.

“At about midseason me, Bubba, Noah and Coach JC sat down and said, ‘We could make a legitimate run at this.’ And we did,” Worrell said. “We started bonding more and started believing in ourselves. Losing nine seniors from last year, we had a lot of doubts coming into it. It feels great. Bubba and I talked to our team and told them how (the title game) is going to be. After the big win last night, we told them it’s going to be a good, hard fought game and if we play out game we’ll come out on top.”

The Crusaders manufactured a run in the first with junior Dylan Smith walking, stealing second with two outs. Northwest Christian’s veteran Worrell brought him home on a single to left.

They almost added to it in the second as sophomore Dusty Inness smacked a double to deep left. Ornelas smacked Ponce with the next pitch.

Leadoff hitter Noah Gray came through with a single, but the Bulldogs gunned down Inness at home – though he believed the tag was missed.

Safford jumped into it thanks to faltering defense by the young Crusaders. Broadhead doubled just over the head of the left fielder and moved to third on a grounder.

With two outs, Lewis’ drive to shallow right dropped when the fielder hesitated early and the ball glanced off his glove.

Other than the hole dug by those errors and a dropped fly ball that brought Lewis to second in the first inning, junior starter Maverick Veres was in command for his six innings pitched.

“Stats don’t lie but in my mind, I have two No. 1 pitchers. Both guys are going to give you the chance to win,” Coach McKee said. “Maverick tonight, on probably the biggest stage of his career so far, stepped up so much. In my eyes, he matured as an adult tonight.”

Ponce kept Northwest Christian deadlocked with two inning ending plays. He lunged in on the dead run to snare freshman Jerrick Arbizo’s fly as it started to drop in shallow center.

Bulldogs runners on first and second base likely would have scored it that hit dropped under his glove.

Then in the sixth he got a jump on senior Izaiah Aguilar’s drive and doubled off the Safford pinch runner that inexplicably went for broke.

“I kind of just see the ball and go at it. I know I have a bunch of teammates behind me in case I do make an error. I’m not scared of making an error,” Ponce said. “If that play (in the sixth) wasn’t made I know we would have come back and put runs on the board.”

Northwest Christian’s Logan Ripple (#6) bats in three runs on a double in the top of the seventh inning against Safford in a 3A championship game May 13 at Surprise Stadium. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

The Crusaders’ 1-7 start was a bit misleading to begin with. The first four losses occurred to 5A and 4A teams at the Fountain Hills tournament — without Worrell.

But those games and early regular season losses to Casteel, Benjamin Franklin and Payson helped Coach McKee figure out what he had, he said.

That’s particularly true of Veres and the team’s ace, fellow junior Jarin Davis.

“When the pitchers actually attacked the strike zone, I knew we had something. When we made the pitchers put the ball in play our defense was making plays. Our offense was hit or miss for the most pat, as cliche as that is,” Coach McKee said.

Ponce and Worrell were the only links on this team with the 2015 champions, as Gray moved in from Blue Ridge High School this offseason. Both said they always believed this team had the talent to bring home another title.

Worrell and Ponce also got the senior privilege of not having to dye their hair blonde during the playoffs. They said once the younger players figured out the team concept and gained the confidence to compete on varsity level, another state title came into view.

“They grew tremendously. In the beginning we knew we were a good ball team but we didn’t play as one. Once we played as one we rolled through,” Ponce said. “Once we got here I thought we had a good chance of winning it.”

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