Midway through March, Liberty baseball was well along the path of embracing his darkhorse role in the 6A title race.
After all, the team had faced, and overcame some adversity in the first week of the season and was looking forward to rematches against Chandler Hamilton and Mountain Ridge at full strength.
But after bouncing back from a late February bus crash, the Lions learned along with the other spring sports that COVID-19 had caused the cancelation of their season.
“Losing our season is still very hard to accept. This years team was hungrier and more battle tested than any other team I’ve been a part of at Liberty. We’ll never get the opportunity to step on that field with each other again and make another run at it which is tough,” senior pitcher Mitchell Schooler stated in a Twitter interview.
While this team boasted a 15-player senior class only six of them played a significant role on the 2019 team.
Largely, the class of 2020 was a plucky group of grinders. But they also showed significant talent early on.
“We ended up going 17-1 our freshman year and ended up bonding,” senior catcher Kyle Lewis said.
The group also debuted in 2017 as Coach Chris Raymond took over the program.
He said this group was very mentally tough. Not a lot was going to bother these seniors.
Though none of them started, three players in this group — including Lewis and Schooler — were on the 2018 team that won the 5A title.
“The most unique thing about this senior class is the bond we made with the younger/lower level players. We tried to make everyone feel important and create a program atmosphere different from anywhere else,” Schooler stated. “Our senior class may have never been the most talented in the state, but we always showed up and competed with our opponent. The senior class lead the team by creating a phenomenal atmosphere in the dugout at practice which was one of our biggest keys to success.”
As juniors, they were part of Liberty’s first 6A team, which came into the playoffs as the No. 10 seed. They upset Mesa Westwood and Chandler Basha to knock those better seeds out of the playoffs, before fellow late bloomers Mountain Ridge won an elimination game in the final six.
While defending champion Hamilton was ranked in the national top 5 by Maxpreps, and Tempe Corona del Sol and Mountain Ridge looked like the other two top contenders, Raymond believed Liberty would be in the final eight — at least again.
From the start, thisteam dealth with adversity. Key senior and outfielder Trevor Saire, was injured on the irst day of tryouts. Raymond said he would have returned to the lineup later in the season.
“It sucked losing Trevor. Covering as much ground as he did in the outfield is insane. He’s probably the best center fielder I’ve ever played with,” Lewis said.
Liberty began the season with three wins in three days during the Wayne Descombes Invitational. But on the third night, Feb. 28, the Lions got into the bus crash after the game.
No one was seriously injured. But several players suffered concussions and other injuries and could not play the next day.
Lewis said he and a couple other regulars joined a junior varsity squad for two games that day.
“As a head coach of the program that was one of my proudest days, the way these kids played,” Raymond said.
This makeshift Liberty team beat a solid Boulder Creek group 7-4 and pushed Mountain Ridge to seven innings, before losing 12-1 to the Mountain Lions.
Raymond and Lewis said they had 30 players in the dugout cheering them on.
“The bus accident brought us together as a program, more so than I’ve ever seen here at Liberty,” Schooler said.
Raymond thought this team could be similar to the 2018 state champions, losing some early season games to top contenders but gaining some payback in the playoffs. He thought his team played Hamilton tough in a 5-0 loss March 6 in Chandler.
Planning to play league rival Phoenix Pinnacle on the Monday of spring break, The rain of the past week and spread of the virus made that game implausible and, eventually, canceled.
Two weeks later, on March 30, the end of in-person classes for the school year led to the end of spring sports.
“It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever encountered. My heart goes out to them. It was painful,” Raymond said. “I think the kids were disappointed but they understood this was a different situation. They took it like men and responded very well.”
One of Raymond’s main regrets is missing the program’s first trip to the National Classic in Orange County, one of the elite high school baseball tournaments in the country. Liberty was starting off agains powerhouse Anaheim Catholic school Servite.
“That was a major disappointment. I felt like our kids had earned it, with what they’ve done in their careers. The next building block was to go out of state,” Raymond said.
Other highlights were two games against the rest of the loaded Desert Valley Region, including Scottsdale Chaparral, Mountain Ridge, O’Connor and Pinnacle.
Then the regular season would end with a special edition of the SUnrise Mountain rivalry, played at Grand Canyon University.
May was the playoff push, and the Lions intended to be playing into the second week.
“It should be the playoffs right now and next week should be the state championships,” Lewis said.
In the last month, Raymond has learned how to lead Zoom meetings and talked to returning players on that.
May 7 was one of the last times he was going to see his seniors, as that was the day they cleaned out lockers.
Interviewed a coupe days before, Raymond knew tears would be shed.
“It’s going to be pretty moving to see them. I think about them every day,” Raymond said.
Right now, seven of the 15 seniors are playing at the next level. Five of them — Lewis, Saire, Jace Derosier, Paul Kelley and Tyler McCaughey — will flood local community colleges last year.
Lewis picked South Mountain Community College because of its track record sending players to four-year schools. He said with a full season, several of his other class mates would have found a home.
“More than half of us aren’t going on to play college ball. And some of them didn’t get a chance to show out.
Jack Rector will play for Concordia College in Chicago. Schooler will commute less than 10 miles to Arizona Christian University in Glendale.
Schooler said the coaching staff and the opportunity to continue playing baseball close to home. He plans to major in computer programming.
“I’m looking forward to competing for a championship my freshman year at ACU and growing more spiritually,” Schooler stated.
Raymond said these seniors are hard working kids that will bloom into something special in college.
The team is normally together almost 11 months of the year, sometimes for five or six hours a day. The coach misses it as much as his players.
“Not being able to see the kids is very weird. They give you tons of life of energy, you feed off their youth,” Raymond said.