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Young Wolves eliminated in 1st round

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Casey Pritchard's picture
SAM CUNNINGHAM of Estrella Foothills fires a warm-up pitch May 2 at Sunrise Mountain. The Wolves lost 12-2 to the Mustangs in the opening round of the 4A state playoffs, finishing the season 19-11. Cunningham was named the Southwest Region Player of the Year. View photo by Ray Thomas
SAM CUNNINGHAM of Estrella Foothills fires a warm-up pitch May 2 at Sunrise Mountain. The Wolves lost 12-2 to the Mustangs in the opening round of the 4A state playoffs, finishing the season 19-11. Cunningham was named the Southwest Region Player of the Year. View photo by Ray Thomas

Estrella Foothills to return 8 of 9 starters in 2018

Estrella Foothills baseball coach Pat McCubbins didn’t know what to expect coming into a year when the Wolves had moved into a more difficult conference and had a plethora of youth, but results showed things worked out pretty well.

Estrella won the 4A Southwest Region to make the state playoffs, only to lose its opening-round game 12-2 at Peoria Sunrise Mountain May 2. The game was halted in the bottom of the sixth inning because of the mercy rule.

I’d chalk it up to nerves,” McCubbins said. “They were definitely nervous, a little bit anxious, and we just struggled defensively all the way around, early.”

Sunrise Mountain, the third seed, jumped out to a 5-0 lead after two innings against No. 14 Estrella. Defensive miscues were a huge problem for the Wolves early in the game.

It was a combination of everything,” McCubbins said. “We got a couple walks, a couple wild pitches, a passed ball, a couple errors, all in the first three innings. I think the first two runs came without a hit.”

Estrella made things interesting by scoring twice in the top of the fourth to make it 5-2. Justin Williamson had a leadoff double and came around to score on a fielder’s choice and an error, making it 5-1. Tyler Godfrey then doubled and was plated on an RBI single by Christian McCubbins.

Kind of like what we’ve done all year long, we did a good job of fighting back,” the coach said. “I felt good at [5-2], then they went out in the bottom of the fourth and got three right back. So, any type of momentum that we grabbed offensively in that half of the inning, we lost, unfortunately.”

It was 8-2 Sunrise going into the bottom of the sixth, and the Mustangs tacked on four more runs to end the game by the mercy rule. Sunrise out hit Estrella 11-5, and the Wolves made three errors.

Despite the loss, McCubbins said the playoff experience for his young team should prove valuable for the future.

This is a huge year for us, obviously,” McCubbins said. “We were moving into the 4A division, didn’t know a whole lot about a lot of teams. I don’t think a lot of people expected us to do a whole lot.”

The Wolves were 6-5 after 11 games, but wound up winning 13 of their final 19. McCubbins said the turning point to the season was a 6-4 victory against Cave Creek Cactus Shadows March 9.

That Cactus Shadows win for us was huge,” McCubbins said. “That kind of gave our kids a sense that they belonged in 4A, they could play in 4A, and we played a very good season the rest of the year.”

Estrella had to win a pair of intense games at the end of the season to claim the Southwest Region crown, including a walk-off win on a wild pitch against Buckeye April 20. The Wolves followed that up with a come-from-behind victory at Yuma April 24. Estrella trailed 5-1 in the fifth before putting a six-spot on the Criminals. It led to an 8-5 win, which secured the region title.

That was, really, a playoff game,” McCubbins said. “Our last two [regular-season] games were playoff games, because if we lose either one of them, we don’t get in; we don’t win a region title.

So, I felt good [May 2]. I think the difference was Sunrise had more offense than a lot of the teams we’ve been able to come back on.”

All-region team

Estrella’s strong season earned 10 of its players mention on the Southwest Region’s all-region team. Sam Cunningham was the region’s Player of the Year, while Godfrey earned defensive Player of the Year. Both were on the all-region first team, along with Rob Jesionowski and Williamson.

Cunningham batted .338 with 27 hits, which was the third highest total on the team. As a pitcher, he went 5-3 with a 3.96 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 53 innings.

Sam hit in the two-hole for us most of the year, and he didn’t have a lot of extra base hits, a lot of RBIs, but his job was to get on base and move runners over,” McCubbins said. “I think he probably had seven or eight bunt base hits where he was trying to move guys over. He knew what his role was. His role was to move guys over, and if he got on base, it was a bonus. As a result, he ended up having a really nice year. He had a couple of outfield assists, and pitching wise, he did a great job for us.”

Godfrey played second base for the Wolves last year, but was the catcher this season to help fill a void.

He was huge,” McCubbins said. “Going into the season, we did not have a catcher we felt comfortable with at the varsity level. With Tyler’s athleticism, we made that transition and just committed to it. He struggled with it early in the year, but a lot of it was that learning curve. We kept letting him know we trusted him and believed in him, and as the year went on, he got better and better. He blocked better, he received better and he threw out guys much more consistently as the season went on.”

Godfrey batted .387 with 10 doubles, a triple and a homer. He had 22 RBI, which led the team, and scored 20 runs.

Jesionowski hit .321 in just 32 plate appearances, but was 6-5 on the mound with a 3.48 ERA. He had three complete games and struck out 50 in 50.1 innings.

Williamson led the team in most offensive categories, batting .414 with 13 doubles, four triples and 26 runs scored. He also had 20 RBI and stole 10 bases.

Getting second-team recognition for the region were Christian McCubbins, Ryan Vanderhei and Jacob McLeod. Jake Kazanecki, Ashton Perez and Javier Vargas earned honorable mention.

Estrella’s roster had just one senior, and most of the starting lineup was freshmen and sophomores. That bodes well for next year, McCubbins said.

That group of guys, if you project toward next year, basically our entire starting lineup is coming back, with the exception of Rob, so now, every one of those guys has playoff experience,” McCubbins said.

The growth they showed in one season is what McCubbins is most proud of, he said.

I asked them at the beginning of the season to grow as young men, to grow as people in terms of responsibility, integrity and character, and reflect that in how they are as baseball players, and they met both of those goals,” McCubbins said. “They kept getting better as the year went on. With a group as young as they were, it would have been an easy 10, 11 games into the season — when we’re basically .500 — to accept the fact that they’re an average, .500 team, and they didn’t. We went 13-6 over the last 19 games, and I think they proved to themselves that they were much better than they actually thought going in.”

 

Casey Pritchard can be reached at caseypritchard@westvalleyview.com
or on Twitter @CaseyonSports.

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