Longtime Palo Verde baseball coach Jim Mentz already has the exact spot picked out. The Titans’ 2014 banner will hang right next to the board honoring his squad from 2011, the last group he took to the playoffs.
While Mentz knows specifically where that sign is going to go on the right-field fence, he’s not quite sure what it will say.
Fifth-seeded Palo Verde is one win away from its first-ever trip to the state finals. The Titans play No. 8 Fountain Hills tonight at 6:30 at Surprise Stadium. A win in the Division III state semifinals would put the Titans in Saturday night’s title game.
“What I want for these kids more than anything is a state title,” Mentz said. “I wish I had a dollar for every person who has told me (that) I’ll never win at this school. I’ve had coaches tell me that, I’ve had adults tell me that and I don’t believe it.”
This is just the second time the program has reached the final four. The previous trip came in 2000, also under Mentz, who took over the team in 1995. In the last 14 years, however, Palo Verde has only made it to the playoffs twice, in 2006 and 2011, and lost in the first round both times.
The Titans (24-4) won seven of their last eight regular-season games this spring, the lone loss in that stretch coming to Canyon del Oro, a Division II team. That loss, and a one-run defeat at top-ranked Bisbee early last month, have yielded some valuable lessons.
“It was a good thing going into the playoffs because we knew we could play with anybody if we could play with CDO like that,” said Tahmani Williams, a senior center fielder who is batting .411 with 35 RBIs.
“We just need to stay focused and play hard as a team. It’s not about individual stuff right now, we’re working on getting that ring and we have to do that as a team.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that undefeated right-hander Tyler Fallwell will start tonight: His father, Jason, is an assistant on the team and a former player. Left fielder Zach Redding’s father, Mark, who played for the Titans in the late 1970s, is also an assistant.
“I want this championship for every single kid who has ever played at this school,” Mentz said. “This is for them, this is for our Palo Verde Titans family. I want a part of everyone to know they built this.”
The Titans never won a playoff game until 1998 and two years later they reached the state semifinals only to lose to Santa Rita, the eventual runner-up.
Now they’re back: They have already set school records with 24 wins and a .857 winning percentage. The only thing left is a trip to the championship game.
Standing in their way is Fountain Hills, the defending champion that has been in the finals seven times in the last 13 years.
The Titans also got a preview of what to expect by holding practice at Kino Stadium under the lights on Thursday night. Although, tonight those lights may be a touch brighter.
“They’re not going to be intimidated because they’ve been there before,” Mentz said about Fountain Hills. “But they’ve got what we want so we have to be more hungry.”
Spring golf finals begin today in Prescott
Tanque Verde is the only local school fielding a full team at this weekend’s Division III golf state championships at Antelope Hills Golf Course in Prescott. Senior Michael Rooyakkers, who placed 16th overall last year, will start the Hawks off with an 11:20 a.m. tee time today.
Desert Christian senior Nick Latta finished eight spots behind Rooyakkers in 2013 and is among the seven individuals from Southern Arizona competing, which includes athletes from Benson, Empire and Pusch Ridge. The second round is Saturday to conclude the event.
Cougars’ relay team captures state title
Lost in the chaos of the always-running-late state track meet at Mesa Community College last weekend was the performance of Sahuaro’s 1,600-meter relay team. Twins Jude and Jerry Ruiz, Brian Jacobs and Anthony Burley, all seniors who have been together for four years, won the boys Division II state title in 3 minutes 24.36 seconds.
Catalina Foothills sophomore Katie Watson took part in winning two team titles on Saturday.
After winning her No. 3 singles match 6-1, 7-5 with the girls tennis team at Paseo Racquet Center in Glendale, Watson hustled across town to place 15th in the Division II girls 1,600 in 5:32.60.
The Falcons beat Scottsdale Notre Dame 5-4 in the tennis final and edged Glendale Cactus by five points to win the track championship.
Boys volleyball teams continue to struggle
As I wrote about last month, having one division for boys volleyball doesn’t work. Southern Arizona teams went 1-8 in the first two rounds Saturday; for the second time in three years, no local team reached the quarterfinals. There are two possible scenarios here: Either the AIA should bring back a second division or, as I-Ridge coach Bill Lang says, Tucson teams need to start playing the bigger Phoenix teams and figure out how to beat them.