Grant Hopkins pitched the first game in the history of Desert Christian High School. It was also the last game he ever pitched.
“Three days later, I got in a bad car accident,” he says. “I had four surgeries on my arm. Double-compound fracture. I lacerated every tendon in my hand. I severed two arteries. I was in the hospital for a week.”
That was March 1990. Hopkins went on to graduate from NAU and become a financial adviser.
Jim Mentz arrived in Tucson in the spring of 1983, hoping for a tryout with the Cleveland Indians. That plan fell apart and went poof.
By 1988, when he graduated from the UA and joined the workforce, Mentz’s best offer was to be the girls soccer coach at Palo Verde High School. Soccer? What did he know about soccer?
“We’ve won 280 games in the 26 years I’ve been here,” he says. “That’s the state record. I still find it hard to believe.”
On Saturday in Phoenix, a few hours and a few miles apart, Hopkins and Mentz coached their baseball teams to state championships. You couldn’t come across two more different men with two more different stories, but it all led to the same thing.
“Joy,” said Hopkins, whose Desert Christian Eagles finished 29-2 in Division IV.
“Elation,” said Mentz, whose Palo Verde Titans went 26-4 in Division III.
“We were this close to a perfect season,” Hopkins says.
“If you look at our statistics, we almost had a perfect season,” says Mentz.
If Hopkins and Mentz have one thing in common, it is that both built their championship teams brick by brick and ballpark by ballpark.
Hopkins began coaching the Eagles in 2007, and for six years struggled to get it right. His clubs were 89-73. He had gone to a coaching clinic in his first year at Desert Christian and heard a coach say it takes about six years to put together a winning program.
“Sure enough, it was almost exactly six years,” Hopkins says now. “Last year, my seventh year, we went 26-4 and won the state championship. There were no shortcuts.”
Mentz began coaching Palo Verde’s baseball team in 1995, and it wasn’t like he stepped into a tradition like those at Canyon del Oro or Sahuaro. The Titans had never won a playoff game.
“Oh, boy, did we struggle,” he remembers. “I found out how hard it could be just to win one baseball game.”
Along the way, Hopkins and his players abandoned their “home field” at Udall Park, and built Desert Christian’s comfy little ballpark with a minimum of outside help.
They hauled cement, did the raking and shoveling, even bought an old scoreboard.
At Palo Verde, Mentz and his players this year raised money by cleaning up the mess at La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, the Tucson Rodeo. At spring break, they spent three hours every day painting dugouts, fixing the outfield fence, and putting up safety netting.
The Eagles and Titans learned more than just how to hit a curveball.
Desert Christian was favored to repeat as the Division IV state champion, but no team had to overcome what the Eagles faced: Assistant coach Ryan Hanson, 34, died in April.
“After that,” Hopkins says, “our goal wasn’t so much to win the state championship as it was to honor Ryan. The kids wanted so badly to win it for him.”
Palo Verde was no one’s idea of the Division III favorite. It reached the semifinals against Phoenix Fountain Hills, which has played in seven state championship games since 2001.
Before the game, a TV reporter from Phoenix asked Mentz how many state titles Palo Verde had won.
“I said, ‘None.’” Palo Verde won 1-0.
Before the state title game, he was asked if he knew Phoenix Northwest Christian had won 18 straight games.
“Oh, I knew all about that,” he says. “Our guys resolved to end that streak the same way we beat Fountain Hills.”
Desert Christian has about 175 students. Palo Verde’s enrollment is 850, about half of what it was a decade ago. Open enrollment, charter schools and private schools have changed high school baseball in Tucson from the way it was when Hal Eustice coached Sahuaro to three state titles in the ’70s and ’80s, and when CDO won titles under three different coaches from 1994 to 2002.
It’s harder now. Talent is dispersed. Players come and go. But both Hopkins and Mentz understand they belong to a select class.
“I’m a sports historian, so I know that the only Tucson schools to win back-to-back state baseball championships in the last 50 years were Sahuaro in ’73-74 and Tucson High in ’88-89,” Hopkins says. “To be part of that company is very special.”
Mentz is no sports historian, but he considers his dues paid in full.
“I kept telling my boys that if we ever won the state title, I’d get a tattoo,” he says.
But in the first round of the state playoffs, Mentz was struck above the right eye by a wild throw as he was in the third-base coaching box. It bled and bled and bled some more. After the game, he went to the emergency room, and wasn’t released until 1 a.m. The team bus for the state quarterfinals was scheduled to leave for Phoenix at 6.
“I had eight stitches above my eye,” he says. “That’s my tattoo. Every time I look in the mirror for the rest of my life, I’ll remember those boys who won the state championship.