5/16/2013 6:00:00 AM Tigers no longer top cats in D3 As tournament shows, it's anybody's game on any given night
No. 3 seed Fountain Hills takes on No. 13 seed Tucson Empire in the Division III championship Saturday at Surprise Stadium. Next year, Kingman Academy must be ready to play each and every night if they expect the same success in Division III as they had in the 3A Charter Athletic Association. RODNEY HAAS/Miner
SURPRISE - The final Division III state baseball tournament bracket after Saturday's championship game resembled a thoroughly busted NCAA March Madness bracket.
The tournament's top two seeds, Show Low (No. 1) and Mohave Valley River Valley (No. 2) were beaten in the quarterfinals by No. 9 and No. 10 seeds, and the 13th-seeded Tucson Empire almost completed the greatest run in this year's high school baseball playoffs.
"People don't think Division III baseball is competitive. These boys can compete with anybody in the state of Arizona," said Empire coach Tom Belter. "They are playing their game, which is hit the ball well and have good pitching, and these boys can compete at the higher level."
On Saturday, Belter's team showed just what Kingman Academy will have in store next year when they make the move to the Arizona Interscholastic Association from the Charter Athletic Association.
Empire took a 4-0 lead after two and half innings, but the third-seeded Fountain Hills chipped away with three in the third and tied it at 4-4 in the fifth inning.
Empire loaded the bases in the top of the seventh, but Fountain Hills was able to get out of the inning and then won the championship in the bottom half of the inning. Ethan Fett hit a ground ball deep in the hole to diving Empire shortstop Ryan Stewart, who snagged the ball and threw a perfect strike to home from his backside that was just a little late to get Paul Brynlarski, giving the Falcons a 5-4 win at Surprise Stadium.
"It was fantastic run," said Belter, whose team is moving to Division II next year. "Once the playoffs start, the season starts over and that's what I told these kids. Set goals for yourself. Coming in as a 13 seed I think some teams might have overlooked us, but these boys played really hard."
A night before, the Tigers closed out their era with the CAA with an 8-0 win over EVAC for KAHS Black's third straight championship and the school's fourth overall.
Next year, the Tigers will be placed in Division III's Section II, which sent three teams to the tournament - including the No. 2 seed River Valley.
"I think Division III baseball is underrated by Division I and Division II," said Fountain Hills coach Mike Briguglio. "There are some big strong kids that play this game. I think the difference is going to be the depth compared to some of the smaller Division III teams, but the top teams play good baseball and can hang with a lot of Division II teams."
The Tigers will have depth and pitching depth. KAHS will be led by Tarik Skubal, who helped lead the Tigers to the CAA championship by pitching a one-hit shutout and the lefty stuck out 16 hitters.
In addition to Skubal, KAHS will return to the pitching staff Westin McCord and Austin Tomlinson along with additions from the Blue team: Cody Quick, Josh Allen and Bailey Rust.
"It's going to be different for us. We are going to have to have extra pitching. You can get away with two pitchers in (the CAA). Now we are going to have to have six pitchers to compete. It will happen," said KAHS coach Bill McCord. "I wish I had this team in the AIA. This is by far the best team that I've placed on the field."
The Tigers finished this year 18-0, averaged 14 runs a game, scored 252 runs and had a team batting average of .432. On the pitching side, the Tigers allowed just 13 runs all year, had a team ERA of .054 and recorded 172 strikeouts.
This type of success in the AIA is highly unlikely, since teams in the AIA are filled with hitters who can hit good pitching and pitchers who can hurl good pitches when they need to.
River Valley, a team that KAHS will be competing with for the Section II title next year, finished the season 24-3-1 and had a team batting average of .388. The Dust Devils scored 293 runs, averaged 10 runs a game, held opponents to three runs a game, had a team ERA of 2.73 and recorded 172 strikeouts.
Show Low, the tournament's top seed, finished the season 22-6 and batted .369 while averaging nine runs a game. The Cougars' pitching staff limited opponents to just four runs a game with a 2.92 ERA and recorded 225 strikeouts.
"I'm excited to go to the AIA and challenge myself and challenge the team," Skubal said. "I think we will be fine. We have a lot of juniors that are coming back. I'm excited for the competition."
Playing in the CAA, the Tigers belonged in a higher league. Beginning next year they will get the higher league they deserve. KAHS will finally see what they are made of.
The days of going out and dominating opponents and rolling to an all but assured state championship are over. State titles from here on out will have to be earned through lots of hard work and a little luck.
As this year's Division III tournament proved, any team can beat anybody on any given night.
If KAHS wants be in the same spot Fountain Hills was on Saturday, they'd better bring their "A" game each and every night.
"I think they can expect to come ready to play," Briguglio said of KAHS. "I think one through 10, and even one through 15, you could flip a coin.
"We don't all play each other and they are not all interchangeable so that can be deceiving. (Empire) is far from a 13 seed."