THE LOST SEASON

Peoria baseball seniors' revitalization project ends a little too early

Posted 5/26/20

 

 

Shawn Sullivan

Sullivan said the Panthers played well against West Valley 6A and 5A teams in fall league games.

"This year was the first in five years with all my kids that …

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THE LOST SEASON

Peoria baseball seniors' revitalization project ends a little too early

Posted

Unlike some West Valley teams, Peoria High baseball did not trot on the diamond thinking this was the year to lift that trophy.

However - with all but two regulars returning from a 2019 team that made the Panthers first postseason appearance since 2007 and posted the program's first winning record since 2006 - the class of 2020 had every right to expect producing Peoria's best season in a long time.

Instead, it was the shortest season in recent memory. The Panthers were 5-4 overall and 4-1 in the regular season when play stopped in mid-March. The spread of COVID-19 caused the end of spring sports on March 30.

"I kept telling these guys your senior year is going to be amazing, just be patient. And then this happens," Peoria High baseball coach Shawn Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the Panthers played well against West Valley 6A and 5A teams in fall league games.

Their first three games this spring were losses to larger schools Vail Cienega, Sierra Vista Buena and Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge during the Cowboy Up tournament in Tucson. Still, all three games were competitive and raised the team's level entering 4A play.

"We got a taste of it. We told each other that we have to make it again and go further into the bracket," senior outfielder/pitcher Bryan Vallardes said. "I've never seen our team in better shape than we were this year."

Sullivan was in his fifth season and said this year was the first that all varsity players have spend all their high school career learning the Panther way of playing.

Five seniors wanted to pass on the program to a large group of sophomores and other underclassmen.

"When we first came in, there was no real leadership. We wanted to make sure that we showed the younger kids how to play," senior catcher Drew Gunnell said.

Peoria won its first three regular season games, including a 10-7 victory in eight innings March 6 at Buckeye.

With Lake Havasu in the second year in the West Valley Region alongside Peoria, the teams saved travel costs, playing a doubleheader. The Panthers hosted this time, on March 9.

In 2019, the Knights swept the Panthers en route to a 7-1 West Valley record and region title. This time, Peoria bounced back from a 13-2 shellacking in the opening game to gain a crucial split in the twin bill.

"That was a big win because it put us in contention for the section title," Gunnell said.

Another senior, Abel Calderon, pitched the Panthers to the rebound performance.

He helped the home team hold a potent Knights lineup to one run in a 3-1 Peoria win.

"My pitching coach was like I'm going to roll with Abel and he went five or six innings. He literally took the team on his back," Sullivan said.

Sullivan said Calderon, Gunnell, outfielder Michael Lebario and Vallardes would have played regularly in their senior year.

Vallardes paced the class of 2020.

"My No. 1 guy this year was Bryan Vallardes. He's a four-year player on the varsity. He was a middle infielder and pitcher all his life. He was struggling in 2019 and I moved him to right field. He was a team guy and never complained, he was a first-team all-region outfielder," Sullivan said.

Though Vallardes said frustration remains that this group did not get to see how well it matched up with the rest of 4A, he now realizes he and his fellow seniors accomplished their main goal.

"My personal goal was to a leave it a better place than I found it," Vallardes said. "I'm pretty sure the kids there are going to continue that."

Juniors Jason Hefley and Lee Linares should be key contributors next year. But when Vallardes talks about the kids, he is mostly referring to the class of 2022.

Sophomores Mikel Black, Nick Erickson, Ethan Lung and Blayden Sullivan joined Hefley as the team's top five hiiters in the truncated 2020 season.

Fellow sophomore Adam Flanders is the Panthers top starting pitcher.

"We're probably 15 deep in that class," Sullivan said. "I've got two or three kids that have played with the Gauchos (Baseball Academy) since age 10 and another eight or nine kids that have played organized baseball since they were 10. When the other team hits a ball in the air, I'm not worried anymore.

The future is bright, even though only three freshman tried out for the sport this spring. But this year was to be the seniors' showcase.

Senior was scheduled for April 28, with Peoria hosting rival Cactus. Sullivan said the baseball booster club put together balloons, banners and a vial of infield dirt from the Panthers' stadium for each senior.

"I drove from house to house, dropped it off in the front yard and took off," Sullivan said.

In a fortunate twist of fate, the Panthers seniors that want it will have the chance for one more showcase.

Several Peoria players will take part in a Senior Showcase event July 9 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise. More than 60 seniors from 20 West Valley high schools plan to show up for evaluation drills plus scrimmage games.

Vallardes said a lot of players are getting ready, staying in shape and hitting off the tee. Gunnell said it's going to be fun to connect with friends on other teams.

If an opportunity to continue his career comes out of this showcase, Gunnell said he will stick at catcher. Both he and Sullivan credited assistant coach Tony Martinez with a quick gestation period at the unique job.

"I picked it up really quickly because I had some good coaching," Gunnell said.

Both Calderon and Gunnell have academic scholarship opportunities.

Vardalles said he may study physical therapy or physical education at college. Either way, hants to stay involved in baseball. And he is even more emphatic about continuing to play.

""I'll find a juco or another opportunity. I'm not done yet," Vallardes said. "I'm trying to stay close, though not necessarily in Arizona."

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