Call them District 5 champs. Call their reign anything but destiny.
Coronado Little League’s Junior All-Stars are headed to the state championship after last Friday night’s 7-6 win over Sabino Canyon.
After dropping Game 1 by two runs, the squad of 13- and 14-year-olds squeezed out a pair of double-run victories, capping a season pitched with deserters, close shaves — and now a shot at the state title.
“A lot of people didn’t even expect we’d win half our games during the regular season,” said team manager Paul Dunn. “These guys just had nothing but heart.”
Whatever rumors circulated early on, pint-sized pitcher Cam Buechler — who threw nearly 100 pitches during last Thursday’s 12-10 slugfest — believed in his team from April’s first pitch.
“It feels great — it’s really good,” Buechler said. “We had a good team this year, so I kinda thought we’d go pretty far.”
Buechler rested his throwing arm a bit on Friday, as the lanky Taylor Lorenson opened on the mound for Coronado. Sabino Canyon drew first blood as Trevor Bradley scored in the second inning off a passed ball.
The scoreboard — turned off during Thursday’s drizzle — lit up twice more for Sabino during the third, off Liam Richards’ RBI double and ensuing trip home off a sacrifice grounder.
Lorenson — one of eight Coronado players groomed to pitch during the season — showed some discomfort during the initial barrage, but hung on to strike out the inning’s final batter.
The hurler’s teammates weren’t about to let morale slip.
“This is the championship game! Act like it’s the championship game,” shouted a young voice in the Coronado dugout. “Who wants to go to state?”
The boys in blue answered immediately.
With bases jammed, catcher Bradley Welch scored on his counterpart’s passed ball. Two more walks scored Coronado second-baseman Ethan Oglesby, before a pitching change yielded a side-retiring grounder.
Coronado evened the score at three in the bottom of the fourth, when Welch crossed home again on a bunt. Oglesby’s RBI double then brought in center fielder Cole Ahearn for the lead and Jared DuBois knocked in Oglesby to go up by two, 5-3.
Lorenson’s outing ended in the fifth, as coach Bob DuBois swapped him for Oglesby with runners at the corners.
Sabino’s Richards stole home for a run, before Coronado’s Adam Turecek retaliated in the bottom half, nabbing the plate off yet another passed ball.
The Canyon crowd shouted encouragement, reminding their kids they’d gouged seven runs out of Coronado in Thursday’s fourth inning.
But that sort of rally wasn’t coming — not after Coronado was tagged to finish below .500 at the season’s outset.
Three kids ditched the team along with a team manager right before opening day. Another quit after the first Saturday doubleheader.
As the All-Stars soldiered on with a roster backfilled from the silver leagues, coaches decided to shoot for fun instead, coach Terry Ahearn said.
“We didn’t want to burn these kids out, we wanted them to go out there and have a great time,” Ahearn said. “So it’s been a great season, though a lot of (games) were tight squeezes.”
True to form, Sabino loaded the bases in the sixth after Coronado’s Michael Ordaz took the rubber. But they doused their own fire and grounded into a double play, as the home side chanted in rhythm.
“It was crazy, I thought we’d lose for a second,” Lorenson said. “But Michael did great.”
Buechler worked Sabino’s Brogan Kennerly into a full count before pounding a single up center in the bottom of the inning. His teammates moved him around the bases for their final run of the evening.
Sabino fans began trickling out of the park with folded lawn chairs. They missed a near-comeback by the Canyon kids, though, who kept up the dugout chatter between innings.
Richards singled, stole second on the following pitch and took third on a passed ball. He scored after another dribble, and Drew Sheets’ single over shortstop scored another runner, closing to 7-6.
A drizzle began.
Oglesby retook the mound before Ahearn caught a centerfield fly. The tying run bolted for home on another passed ball — but backup catcher Andres Castel de Oro, plugged in during the sixth, dove at it and threw from the backstop.
The umpire signaled “out.” Coronado erupted.
Dunn caught the Gatorade shower and Castel de Oro deflected his own efforts, praising the team’s guts — and the bases-loaded double play that saved its collective neck.
“I think defense won it, but when we needed the bats, we got the bats,” Castel de Oro said.
Ahearn admitted feeling some pressure, speeding in to grab the second-to-last out. His team’s got a “pretty good chance” to win the state tournament and head to August’s regional playoffs in Beaverton, Ore, he said.
But first the dugout needed a good cleanup, before the team celebrated at Hooters and capped their championship as kids would.
“Sleepover maybe?” Lorenson said.