Chaparral baseball ends transition year with playoff loss to Mesquite

Chaparral junior Lucas Haugen fires away a pitch during the Firebirds’ 3-1 loss to Mesquite in the 5A state playoffs. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

As the sun started to dip behind the towering buttes surrounding Diablo Stadium in Tempe, the Chaparral High School baseball team started to file off the field after ending the first year of a new era in the program.

The No. 12 Firebirds couldn’t answer a three-run fifth inning from No. 1 Mesquite High School, falling 3–1 to the Wildcats Thursday, May 3 in an elimination game of the 5A state playoffs.

Senior Ryan Jordan, who finished 2-for-3 from the plate, knocked an RBI single to put the Firebirds up 1–0 in the top of the fourth. Prior to that, Mesquite’s pitching had kept Chaparral’s bats quiet.

“(The pitcher) wasn’t off today, man,” senior Will Fuenning said after the game. “He was hitting his spots, he was pounding us to get in, he had a good knuckleball and he fooled us as hitters.”

Junior Holden Breeze and senior David Watson combined for six strikeouts against Chaparral. Mesquite coach Jeff Holland said pitching has been the team’s strength throughout the season.

The Firebirds did record six hits but ended the game with a .387 on-base percentage and a .320 slugging percentage. Heading into this game, Chaparral had .455 on-base and .512 slugging percentages.

While the Mesquite defense kept Chaparral’s offense quiet, the Wildcats’ offense got a boost from junior Davis Heller’s home run to left field in the bottom of the fifth.

Senior Cole Westerlund scored on a wild pitch and junior Grant Gorrell hit an RBI single to round out Mesquite’s 3–1 lead after five. Coach Holland said the hitting came after his players adjusted after several poor at-bats early in the game.

“They finally settled down and let the ball get there and put good, level swings on the ball,” he said.

Chaparral senior Will Fuenning fouls off a pitch during the Firebirds’ 3-1 loss to Mesquite in the 5A state playoffs. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The Firebirds had an opportunity with runners on first and third with two outs in the top of the seventh but the rally never became a reality. Still, Chaparral coach Nicholas Steward said he was impressed with how his team never gave up.

“Our kids fought, that’s all you can say about it,” he said. “You can come up with a hit here, a hit there and it’s a different outcome but Mesquite’s a really good ball club.”

With the loss comes the end of not only Chaparral’s season, but Coach Steward’s first year leading the program.

Coach Steward said transition can be tough on high school students but he was proud of how they adjusted to a new coach and played unified throughout the season.

“They bought in and we got better as the year went on,” he said. “The idea is to be playing your best in May and I think we were.”

Early in the year, the Firebirds’ lost 10 of their first 12 games. They ultimately finished with a 17–15 record, including the postseason.

Fuenning said early in the season, everybody wrote them off, saying the Firebirds wouldn’t reach 10 wins on the season. Despite others calling Chaparral the “dark horse,” Fuenning said the team made a statement by allowing the No. 1 seed to only score three runs.

“Looking back at what we did as a team and what we accomplished as a team in unbelievable,” he said. “This new coaching staff came in, man, and they were unbelievable. All of them are great guys and know what they are talking about. I’m blessed I was able to play for all of them.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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