Before games, Nogales pitchers spilt into teams of three to warm up with a ball — one slightly bigger than what’s seen on the baseball diamond.
Using their hats to outline a goal, the reserve pitchers kick around a soccer ball to unwind while the starter serves as a referee.
“There’s no added pressure, they’re just out there having fun,” said O.J. Favela, in the midst of his 10th, and most successful, season coaching Nogales. “That’s the mentality of it.”
Yet, an unusual pregame ritual isn’t the only thing that makes this Apaches team unique.
Rather, it’s one of many facets that have propelled Nogales (30-6) to the Division II state championship game today against No. 1 Phoenix Greenway at 4:30 p.m. at Salt River Fields. It’s the team’s first appearance since 1981.
The Star caught up with the Apaches to uncover the main ingredients in their run to championship game.
‘Pitchers Only Nation’
Entering the season, the coaching staff worried that pitching would be the team’s weak spot. Instead, it’s been the team’s identity.
The staff decided to designate six players as strictly pitchers, a choice not usually possible with kids wanting to be superstars and do everything in high school, Favela said.
“They just accepted the role and I praise them a lot for that because it’s very unselfish,” he added.
The now-five pitchers – a shoulder injury knocked senior Marco Fuentes out of the rotation — branded themselves the “P.O. Nation” and have more than backed the nickname up.
Together the “Pitchers Only Nation” — seniors Alan Sinouhui, Juan Vega and Anthony Martinez, junior Issac Lopez and sophomore Angel Zuniga — have a combined 2.55 ERA and 176 strikeouts while issuing 67 walks in an almost equally-distributed 222.0 innings pitched.
Baseball is rarely a simple game, but Favela breaks the winning formula down to easy addition — be the first side to reach five runs.
“If we can get to five, we are going to win a lot of ball games,” he said. “It’s just the mentality that if we get to five first, (the other team) is going to be playing catch-up.”
Through 36 games, the approach worked nearly flawless. The Apaches are 20-1 when reaching the magic number first, and the simplistic attitude has seemed to help the team stay confident in close, competitive games.
Even when Gilbert Campo Verde came charging back from a seven-run deficit in Nogales’ first game of the state tournament, Favela kept reminding his players they were still ahead despite the dwindling lead.
And even with a tough schedule, the No. 4-seeded Apaches are 14-5 in games decided by two runs or less. The only blowout, though, came at the hands of their opponent today, a 9-1 loss earlier in the playoffs to the top-seeded Demons.
‘Big team, little me’
The platoon of pitchers hasn’t been the only unselfish part of Nogales’ roster.
Favela said the players’ acceptance of the concept of “big team, little me” has given Nogales a strong chemistry this season.
Two players in particular – senior Aloyisius Cruz and Alan Garcia – were able to stay focused on team goals rather than be bogged down by personal struggles, Favela said.
Cruz, the cleanup hitter, started the season 1 for 15 with 12 strikeouts in the Sunnyslope Baseball Tournament. Since, he’s only had nine strikeouts and raised his average to .384.
As a leadoff hitter in 2013, Garcia’s batting average fell below the Mendoza Line. He’s completely flipped the script this year with the second-best average on the team at .481.
Now Cruz, Garcia and the rest of the Apaches are on the verge of a feat 33 years in the making.
“People in Tucson say bring it back to the south,” Favela said. “But it’s not about bringing it back to Tucson for these kids — it’s about bringing it back to Nogales.”