February 6 was a Monday. It was a Monday like the many that came before and, I suppose, like the many yet to come, except that Monday was a little different – it was the first day of baseball practice.
True, Nogales beat Salpointe 13-4 Saturday night at Hi Corbett Stadium to capture the tenth championship in school history, but there is so much more to a season than one day, played in front of 4,000 fans and a few members of the media.
It takes thousands of ground balls, hundreds of hours in a batting cage and dozens of blisters and skinned knees before the first official batting lineup is taped to a wall in a dugout. No one buys a ticket to see those moments.
Those moments turn into wins and losses and Nogales (28-4) was one of the best in the state at collecting wins until Salpointe (25-8) came to town in mid-April. The Apaches were 21-1 and seemingly unbeatable and the Lancers were 19-6 and hoping to survive the best region in the state – the 4A Kino Region to be exact.
“When we looked at our roster on the first day we wondered how we were going to win at this level,” head coach Danny Preble said. “We play in a region with Nogales, Canyon del Oro and Catalina Foothills. But we competed and the guys bought in from day one. They earned the right to be here.”
The Lancers won 12 games with runs scored after the fifth inning. It’s a coach’s nightmare but talk about a season of moments, lose one of those games and the Lancers would have been seeded much higher than the No.2 ranking the team earned. But the biggest of the dozen comebacks was the 13-10 victory over the Apaches on that April day.
Nogales had an 8-0 lead heading to the fourth inning and 10-2 after the fourth but the Lancers scored two in the sixth and nine more in the seventh for the win. It was a season-changing game for both teams.
That comeback was on everyone’s mind Saturday night after the Lancers built a 6-1 lead in the first inning of the 4A championship game and a 10-4 lead after the fourth. Was it possible for the Lancers to put it all back together once again?
Ian Ponce started the game off with a single and Efrain Cervantes knocked him home two batters later but the Lancers were unable to push anyone else across the plate with Cesar Dominguez (6-2) taking control of the mound.
Then came Nogales. The Apaches scored six runs to take that early lead. Alec Acevedo came up with a 2-RBI double in the inning as did Gera Lopez. The Apaches drew six walks in the first and the team scored four runs with two outs. They would go on to score 11 of their 13 runs in the game with two outs on the scoreboard.
Salpointe had the bases loaded with no outs in the second but Dominguez held them back again. Nogales loaded the bases in the bottom half of the inning and Jesus Carmona held firm to keep the score 6-1.
Nogales took a 7-1 lead in the third but the Lancers came storming back in the fourth thanks to a 2-run blast from J. Bill Rivera. It was a shot that cleared the 30-foot wall in the left field, some 400 feet away, which was remarkable considering the junior was recovering from a separated shoulder.
“I guess I was in a dream stage when I hit it,” Rivera said. “I didn’t recognize it till I got to third base. I didn’t think I was going to be able to play with my shoulder but I tried to do what I needed to do.”
Rivera echoed Preble’s assessment of how others viewed Salpointe early on.
“No one said we were talented this year,” Rivera added. “But we had a lot of walk-off wins this year and worked hard to get here. Nogales probably worked just as hard as us but it wasn’t our night.”
The Lancers cut the lead down to 7-4 but Jesus Lopez got the Apaches going in the bottom of the inning on a two-out double and Nogales would eventually get all three runs back to take a 10-4 lead. Ralph Padilla hit a double in the bottom of the sixth to help pace the Apaches to a 13-4 lead but the Lancers gave it one last shot.
The Lancers loaded the bases with one out in the top of the seventh but there was no magical comeback Saturday night. Oscar Lechuga took over for Dominguez in the fourth and he got two fly balls to end the game.
“I came in knowing how to pitch to them because I faced them earlier,” Dominguez said. “But my best wasn’t working a lot tonight. Those early runs helped me out.”
It was the first championship for Nogales since 1981 and current coach OJ Favela was in the stands that day, watching his dad, Oscar, coach and future University of Arizona and MLB standout Gil Heredia pitch.
Now, some 36 years later, Favela’s son Diego is wearing an Apache uniform, his younger son, Andre was watching the celebration from the stands and his father is an assistant coach. Even more, Favela has a rich connection to the Salpointe dugout.
“I was an assistant at Salpointe from 1994 to 1996 and I coached Danny and Steve Coffey (Salpointe assistant coach) when I was there,” Favela said. “I’m happy our guys won but I would have been equally proud if they had won tonight.”
Favela coached Nogales to a runner-up finish in 2014 and he told his guys to get this one for those who came close in the past. Those are good words for the Salpointe faithful.
Salpointe had back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1996 and 1997 and this year was another close call but Preble will be in his tenth year next spring and his first win of the year will be his 200th.
Preble’s milestone win should come on the first day of whatever preseason tournament the program will take part in next year, some two weeks after a new group of boys gets fitted for tryouts.
Likewise, much will be expected from Favela and his new group of boys. Favela (262-132) will be in his 13th season. Each win is a milestone at this point in his career but none will be as rewarding as the day he stood on the biggest stage Tucson has to offer with his father and two sons by his side and a trophy waiting on the bus.
It was the final moment of the baseball season…..until the All-Star games!