The season was over so early that it was hard to be certain, but every scrap of evidence before and during the 2020 season suggests Sunrise Mountain baseball was one of those teams that was better on the field than on paper.
This group was pretty darn good on paper too. Led by seven seniors the Mustangs carried momentum from the closing stretch of 2019, reaching the final six of the 5A playoffs in its first year back in the conference.
Bursting out of the gates, Sunrise Mountain beat Ironwood 11-1 and 11-4, Canyon View 12-2 and Gilbert Campo Verde 3-1.
“I don’t think our team was as talented as past teams I was on here but we were playing better collectively,” senior pitcher/outfielder Tyler Davis said.
Coach Michael Deardoff stated in an email that it was not a case of carrying something over from last year as it players being more familiar with what the team was doing this year and not feel like they had to prove themselves.
“We had a lot of guys who pressed at the beginning of last year and this year we were playing more loose,” Deardoff stated.
Senior third baseman and three-year varsity player Jacob Stockton said this year’s team was unusually close, from fall ball to spring break.
In those four games, the Mustangs batted .348 and averaged just short of 10 runs per game.
“Jacob Stockton and Garrett Moltz had a very trying seasons last year and were both off to a hot starts. Tyler Davis was coming back from off-season arm surgery and put up monster numbers in our four games. Alex Ramirez played a role for us toward the end of last year but had solidified the top of our pitching rotation and up the middle when he wasn’t on the mound,” Deardoff said.
Sunrise Mountain upset Campo Verde in the playoffs last year. The Coyotes have been on the 5A baseball short list since losing to Deardoff’s 2017 Kellis team in the state title game.
Davis, for one, believed the Mustangs were underrated heading into that game.
“We wanted to make a statement that we are here,” Davis said.
From there the schedule was a week off then a tournament sandwich. The Mustangs would start its own Best of the West tournament, then play games in the Boras Classic March 12-14 then finish up the Best of the West.
Rain wiped out the early games and the spread of COVID-19 squashed the end of the Best of the West.
“We never knew when our last game was going to be. It sucks that it was the last time I get to play with these guys,” Stockton said.
Between the suspension of spring sports on March 15 and the cancellation of the rest of the season, Stockton held out hope that baseball would come back.
Davis did not, at least not for long.
“When the major sports leagues shut down, I kind of saw the writing on the wall,” Davis said.
So, unfortunately, the Mustangs, ended up with an even more shortened season than their peers.
In addition to the tournaments, Sunrise Mountain also missed out on regular season showdowns with Millennium and Verrado — and the continuation of its rivalry with Liberty near the end of the season at Grand Canyon University’s field.
“It’s hard to pinpoint a couple games I was looking forward to when you lose 24 games. I was just excited about how we started and was looking forward to what we could do the rest of the year,” Deardoff stated.
The early end of their high school careers is still raw for many of the seniors, particularly since this team forged a unique bond.
“We’ve stayed connected as much as we could,” Stockton said. “We’re still close with each other. We might do a little ceremony when we got the chance.
Davis said Deardoff recently drove to seniors’ houses to give them a gift.
For the coach, the suddenness of everything was difficult to process.
“Obviously we understand why it happened and that it was the right move to make, but it’s not exactly something you can prepare for. We were extremely excited about how well we had started the year and were optimistic on the future given our team’s talent, depth, and what we had seen in practices. I think that optimism makes it even more difficult to accept because of all of the lost opportunities and not having really any closure to the year. Ironically, before our first couple games we talked about playing each and every game as if it was your last and not to take it for granted. With what ended up transpiring a little less than three weeks later, I’m hoping that message has really been absorbed,” Deardoff stated.
Both Davis and Stockton were three-year varsity players, and both enjoyed the chance to play in the final eight of the playoffs in their sophomore and junior years.
Davis looks back on the Mustangs’ 2018 run, when the team nearly reached the 4A state final. Sunrise Mountain pushed eventual champion Nogales to extra innings in this elimination game at Hohokam Stadium, before falling 6-5 in nine innings.
“My favorite memory was that game with Nogales. Ethan Snodgrass came to the plate with us down to our last out and tied it. That was a great game,” Davis said.
That was the final game for program-founding coach Eric Gardner before he stepped back. Deardoff arrived and guided the Mustangs back to the stadiums in the 5A playoffs.
Stockton had not doubt the Mustangs would be in a stadium right now if not for the coronavirus.
“The coaches helped us work and made sure grinded. Being able to play under the lights of those stadiums was something I’ll never forget,” Stockton said.
All of the Mustangs are fortunate in the fact that they can see their name in lights again. Twelve players can come back next season.
And all seven seniors signed to play for a college next year.
“Fortunately for us all seven of our seniors have signed to play somewhere next year so I know they are looking forward to getting back on the field,” Deardoff said. “I’m thankful that all of my guys have next year to look forward to whether it’s in college or back with us. Not all programs are fortunate like that and I feel awful for the guys who lost their last chance.”
Pitcher Joey Del Carlo signed with Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash. Outfielder Tanner Burton will stay close to home at OUAZ in Surprise.
Davis made an early verbal commitment to the University of Arizona, but the Wildcats lost interest. So he looked to the junior college powerhouse in his birthplace, Prescott, and had an advance scout in Snodgrass.
“Yavapai (College) cares about you as a person and want to develop you. Snoddy goes there and said the coaches are great. Plus the weather is better,” Davis said.
Infielder Lance Wall will play at Glendale Community College. Pitcher Tasker Tripi makes the trek to Lawrence Tech in Michigan.
Moltz and Stockton will be a package deal at Paradise Valley Community College.
“He committed and I said we’re going to do this together. The coaches are very welcoming. I’m just about to sign up with my classes here,” Stockton said.