Ryan Hanson would have been proud of the way his Desert Christian boys responded on the hottest day of the year and under the immense pressure of having to beat its rival for the third time this season while also aiming to repeat as champ.
Desert Christian also was playing for its assistant coach, Hanson, who died during the season from a blood clot in his lung, and teammate Jonah Stiffey, who didn’t return to play after suffering a head injury during an ATV accident during the season. On Saturday, Desert Christian found itself in an unfamiliar spot in the D-IV final at Goodyear Ballpark, down two runs to Pusch Ridge Christian before taking its first swings.
What Desert Christian experienced off the field this year strengthened the players’ bond, and they exhibited that strong will Saturday, scoring all of its runs with two outs, allowing them to walk away as state champs with a 4-2 victory.
“I think we are a really resilient group,” said Saturday’s winning pitcher Zach Malis. “What happened during the season brought out a bit of character. We had our ups and downs, but we played for each other. We played for (Desert Christian assistant) Mike (Ryan’s father). We played for Ryan, and ultimately we honored them by doing that.”
But Pusch Ridge (26-5) also did a fine job of representing its school and community this year.
Desert Christian (29-2) didn’t exactly dominate Pusch Ridge like it did most of its opponents this season. And with Malis struggling with his location in the first inning, Pusch Ridge jumped on Desert Christian to take the early lead thanks in part to a wild pitch that scored Desert Christian’s second run.
Pusch Ridge started Jacob Frithsen, the last pitcher to hand Desert Christian a D-IV loss in the past two seasons. Frithsen responded this time with an MVP performance, collecting three of Pusch Ridge’s four hits in the game and nine strike outs Saturday.
But Pusch Ridge gave Desert Christian a wild pitch gift after receiving one in the first inning. With a runner on third and two outs, Pusch Ridge appeared to get out of the inning after a third call strike, but the ball got away, allowing Desert Christian to score its first run.
For the most part, both teams’ catchers, Pusch Ridge’s Phillip Tanner and Desert Christian’s Zach Rosson, did an admirable job of keeping a lot of balls that were in the dirt in front of them. Desert Christian plated its second run after a good at-bat by Malis, whose opposite field single to left scored the runner on third in the bottom of the third inning.
Juniors Ryan Phillips and Andrew Edwards also came through in the clutch with two outs. In the fifth inning, they each hit RBI singles on the ground to score the final runs of the game.
Mike, who took a week off after his 34-year-old son passed away, celebrated with his team and coaching staff after the game ended.
“Since (coming back), there’s been little reminders of Ryan,” Mike said. “He would want us to do it this way. He would want us to go this hard. It was never about going half speed. The roller coaster was losing him. But once we got back on the field we all picked each other up.”
Desert Christian, the D-IV favorite this season, donned shirts with a target printed on the back this season.
That target will get bigger next season, because the two-time defending champ will be the favorite again next season since it only losses one player off of this year’s team.
“We’ll worry about that later,” said Desert Christian coach Grant Hopkins about next season. “I can’t say enough about how well we responded with two outs.”