As if playing two games each regular season isn't enough, Mountain Ridge and O'Connor's powerhouse baseball programs have now faced off in four of the last five seasons that had playoffs.
And their May 11 meeting at Mountain Ridge in a 6A playoff quarterfinal was the best game yet. O'Connor evened up the playoff scoreboard with a 6-5 victory and, as in the 2018 state final, the Eagles have a freshman pitcher to thank.
Barrett Skaugrud is now a senior and scored the Eagles' sixth run. He started and won that state title game three years ago.
Tuesday, he got to watch freshman Hustyn Wheeler supply the heroics. First, Wheeler drove in a run for a 4-3 lead in the fourth inning. Then he pitched the final three innings in relief for the win, allowing a Mountain Lions run in the seventh but shutting the door on a rally.
"We pitched them early in the year against them with a lead and he was on the wrong side of it. But we gave him the ball the other day and he competes. He doesn't know any better. That's the thing about freshmen, they don't know any better or think they should be nervous," O'Connor coach Jeff Baumgartner said.
After surviving a 6A state title contender in its neighborhood, #6 O'Connor (15-7) faces ... the other 6A state title contender in its neighborhood. The Eagles will play #2 Liberty (19-3) at 4 p.m. Saturday at HoHoKam Stadium, 1235 N. Center St., Mesa.
Liberty is riding a 17-game winning streak and eviscerated #7 Scottsdale Chaparral (12-8) 14-1 in five innings in its 6A quarterfinal. But either way, the Lions were going to play one of two teams to beat them this season in the semis. In this case it's O'Connor, which swept Liberty in the regular season.
"We've been in close games and I think we've had the lead in every game except one all year. We've had to execute the little things to win," Baumgartner said. "Hopefully we're prepared for it. We're ready to fight. We know they've been on fire. But shoot, we're the underdogs. They're the #2 seed. We're playing with house money."
Now the Eagles will have to beat the odds and win a third game against the Lions. Those same odds were working against the Mountain Lions, who swept O'Connor in mid-April.
Mountain Ridge never led Tuesday, but matched O'Connor's score in every inning until the seventh. Artie Cox's team won the Desert Valley Region in the regular season, then faced having to do it again in the playoffs as all four quarterfinalists in the bottom half of the draw are in the Desert Valley.
"It's hard to beat a team three times in a season. We lost our starting pitcher for today and had to battle through that. But they're a good baseball team and very hard to beat," Cox said. "It's crazy how the playoffs always end up this way, with our region over here playing each other after you've played each other in two dogfights near the end of the season. This is a region championship to get to the state title game."
Senior Cayden Collins was to start but missed the game because of COVID protocol contact tracing. Junior Jace Smith got the nod and the visitors jumped on him early with first inning RBI by Skaugrud and junior Preston Lucas.
Mountain Ridge got two back in the first on senior Cannon Smith. Junior A.J. Singer hit a leadoff home run and sophomore Carson McEntire hit a game-tying RBI.
Junior Kolt Kurzman led off the third with a single and scooted to third on a pickoff throw. Skaugrud hit a chopper but the throw to second was high leaving every Eagle safe and allowing Kurzman to score.
That caused Smith to exit and Matt Martinez to enter in relief. He got two strikeouts and Aidan Bever threw out senior Chase Valentine trying to steal third to keep it 3-2.
"He threw really, really good today. We made some small mistakes here and there. And when you're playing really good baseball teams the team that makes the least amount of mistakes wins," Cox said.
Martinez kept the Mountain Lions in the game in five innings of relief. Senior Jake Alwine walked with two outs in the bottom of the third and McEntire singled to chase Cannon Smith.
Baumgartner tried seniors James Webster and Luke Dickson in relief before settling on Wheeler, knowing this game would be a battle of bullpens. Junior Cooper Nevill's bloop single just beyond first place scored Alwine to tie it at 3 in the third.
"We're not hiding anything from them. We wanted to give them a different look to get some momentum. Every time we scored we gave up a run and couldn't get momentum. We had to keep throwing out different arms from different angles and different looks," Baumgartner said.
Wheeler hit his RBI in the fourth. Junior Josh Wakefield responded by hitting a triple to lead off the bottom of the fourth and junior Shaun Cottrell drove him in to tie.
"I thought they handled it great. If you look at the scoreboard, it was they punch, we punch," Cox said. "They had some experience from club ball but it never gets this intense."
Baumgartner said Lucas can crush the baseball, and is probably the best hitter on the team when he's playing with confidence. Valentine reached on a two-out error in the seventh and Skaugrud walked to set up Lucas and his game winning two-run double.
Singer singled and Peery walked. Alwine was just safe at first to avoid a double play and McEntire hit a sacrifice fly to make it 6-5 before Wheeler got the final out.
Singer and senior DH Josh Martinez were the only Mountain Lion position players with playoff experience from 2019. Pitchers Gray Bailey, Collins and Martinez were the only other sure things on this young team.
"I didn't know what to expect. We were replacing basically everybody," Cox said. "Our goal was just to make the playoffs. As the season went on I said, 'Oh my gosh, this team can really play. Gray has been the one dominant force but every kid has contributed at some point to help us win baseball games."
This game turned out to be Cox's farewell at Mountain Ridge. He said coaching in two COVID-altered seasons was draining and he may look at a college pitching coach job.
Cox started as head coach the same year his seniors began at Mountain Ridge and credited them with continuing to grow the program. While a state title would be an ideal way to finish, the coach was thrilled to say goodbye coaching this year's team.
"For this to be my last season here ... we've kept it under wraps and I didn't want it to be about me ... this is my style of team. They're a hard-nosed, gritty, get after it kind of team. And I couldn't ask for any more of this group of guys."