VX baseball preview: Hamilton, Desert Mountain start on top

The lasting image of the 2012 baseball season was Dylan Cozens blasting a walk-off, opposite-field homer to lift Chaparral to the Division I championship over Brophy.

There are a lot of new faces this season but the same perennially competitive programs are expected to be among the Division I title favorites.

Hamilton and Desert Mountain look like the top early contenders, but the state tournament always holds its fair share of surprises. The East Valley has most of the dominant teams like usual, but Sandra Day O’Connor hopes to crash the party.

In Division II, Phoenix Sunnyslope won the title last season and has the talent to repeat. Notre Dame might be the best of the East Valley contingent, but Williams Field, Queen Creek and Seton Catholic could also give the Tucson and West Valley powers a scare. Saguaro has been ultra-successful the past few seasons but must replace almost every key contributor from a year ago.

Scottsdale Christian was the No. 4 seed in last year’s Division III tournament and is the preseason No. 1 with almost every key bat returning.

Scottsdale Prep and Tempe Prep are a pair of East Valley teams who could be a factor at tournament time in Division IV.

Preseason Rankings

DIVISION I

1. Hamilton — Mitch Nay graduated and star senior Patrick Murphy won’t pitch this year, but Huskies still stacked

2. Desert Mountain — New coach, but Cody Erickson, David Greer and Tim Willittes will lead the way

3. Pinnacle — Brock Hartley, M.J. Hubbs and Gerard Hernandez are dangerous at plate

4. Chaparral — The Firebirds lost a lot of talent, but they reload instead of rebuild

5. Brophy — Ryan Castellani, Michael Westra return for defending state runners-up

6. Sandra Day O’Connor — Pitching should be very strong again for last year’s final four participant

7. Corona del Sol — Plenty of experience back for Aztecs, including shortstop Josh Ethier

8. Mountain Pointe — Brantley Bell and a loaded junior class could have Pride in the mix

9. Gilbert — Josh Moore and Dustin Peterson will lead potent offense, but is there enough pitching?

10. Desert Ridge — USC-bound Riley Unroe leads a team which lost only five seniors

DIVISION II

1. Sunnyslope — Defending champs the favorites to win again behind Calvin Lebrun and Casey Bowman

2. Sunrise Mountain — Last year’s top seed fell short, but Brisk Paskiewicz and Seth Martinez are back

3. Liberty — State runner-ups will be in mix again with a multitude of returners

4. Notre Dame — Duncan Morfitt, Austin Schnabel and Kobie Foppe lead perennially strong Saints

5. Sahuaro — Pitching should be strength of Cougars

6. Salpointe — Michael Hoard the key for Lancers

7. Sabino — Matt Bushman leads talented group of juniors

8. Canyon del Oro — Elite starters Tyler Brown and Gabe Benavides should be even better with experience

9. Ironwood Ridge — Pitching staff will be revamped, but Nighthawks can hit

10. Cactus Shadows — Key pitchers back and some bats, too

DIVISION III

1. Scottsdale Christian — The Eagles went 19-8 last season and return a ton of talent

2. River Valley — Star hurler Tyler Scully is back for defending champions

3. Blue Ridge — Pitching should be strong for last year’s semifinalists

4. Fountain Hills — Made run to semifinals last season and looking for more

5. Show Low — Almost everyone is back as Yellow Jackets look to make jump to elite

DIVISION IV

1. St. David — Defending champions bring back plenty of hitting, pitching

2. Phoenix Christian — Last year’s No. 1 seed bowed out in semis and wants more

3. Valley Lutheran — Top five hitters and solid pitching is back

4. Desert Christian — Good mixture of hitters and pitching return

5. Scottsdale Prep — Everyone of substance returns, including star Matt Munsil

Players to watch

Jamie Westbrook, Sr., SS, Basha: Hit .532 with 13 HR, 35 RBI, slugging percentage of 1.117 last year

Ryan Castellani, Jr., OF/RHP, Brophy: Big-time prospect has immense power (9 HR as sophomore) and great arm

Cody Bellinger, Sr., 1B, Hamilton: Sweet-swinging left-hander is signed with Oregon

Riley Unroe, Sr., SS, Desert Ridge: Leader of always-dangerous Jaguars; committed to Southern California

M.J. Hubbs, Sr., OF, Pinnacle: Hit .431 with seven homers, team-high 10 doubles last year

Josh Moore, Sr., Sr., Gilbert: Utah commit can mash; hit .449 with 5 HR, 1.349 OPS last season

David Greer, Sr., 3B, Desert Mountain: One of several dangerous bats for Wolves

Dustin Peterson, Sr., SS, Gilbert: Led team in batting average (.451), RBIs (40) in 2012; signed with ASU

Tim Willittes, Sr., RHP, Desert Mountain: One of the best arms in the state anchors the rotation

Colby Woodmansee, Sr., SS, Desert Vista: Arizona State-signee a big key to Thunder’s fortunes

Others to watch

Arcadia: Max Schuman, Sr., C; Brophy: Michael Westra, Sr., P; Connor Messman, Sr., C; Campo Verde: Aaron Dotson, Sr., IF; Combs: Nelson Paredes, Jr., IF; Corona del Sol: Josh Ethier, Sr., IF; Nathan Birecki, Jr., RHP; Chaparral: Dillon Jackson-Bigcrane, Sr., IF; Collin Gabel, Jr., IF; Michael Diamond, Sr., P; Desert Mountain: Jakob Goldfarb, Jr., OF; Ben Rodriguez, Sr., C; Cody Erickson, Sr., P/IF; Desert Vista: Tyler Viza, Sr., RHP; Gilbert: Jack Zoellner, Sr., IF; Gilbert Christian: Trae Still, So., IF; Hamilton: Sean Rackoski, Sr., P; Highland: Ethan Evanko, Sr., P; Horizon: Zach Taylor, Jr., C; McClintock: Preston Ryan, Sr., P; Mesa: Brock Hale, Sr., OF; Mountain Pointe: Brantley Bell, Sr., IF; Cole Tucker, Jr., IF; Mountain View: Landon Russo, Sr., LHP; Notre Dame: Duncan Morfitt, Sr., IF; Kobie Foppe, Jr., IF; Austin Schnabel, Sr., P; Pinnacle: Brock Hartley, Sr., IF; Gerard Hernandez, Jr., OF; Poston Butte: Wyatt Pattyson, Sr., IF; Queen Creek: Marcus Still, Jr., IF; Red Mountain: Jordan Zimmerman, Sr., IF; Saguaro: Turner Lace, Jr., IF; Andrew Shaps, Jr. OF; Scottsdale Christian: Clay Crookham, Sr., P; Matt Benefiel, Sr., IF; Scottsdale Prep: Matt Munsil, Jr., IF; Seton Catholic: Matt Pawlowski, Sr., IF; St. Mary’s: Irvin Ruiz, Sr., P; Antonio Coronado, So., IF/P; Tempe Prep: Andrew Otting-Crandall, Jr., OF; Valley Christian: T.J. Widner, Jr., IF; Williams Field: Brandon Amenta, Sr., IF.; Chris Kobar, Jr., C.

Key dates

March 9-14: Cleats Classic Invitational

March 18-22: Big League Dugout Invitational

April 2: Desert Mountain at Pinnacle

April 9: Brophy at Hamilton

April 19: Chaparral at Brophy

April 22: Fountain Hills at Scottsdale Christian

April 27: Start of D-I, D-II state tournaments

April 30: Start of D-III, D-IV state tournaments

May 11: D-III, D-IV championship games

May 14: D-I, D-II championship games

Storylines

Hamilton, Valley Christian lose stars: Patrick Murphy was a dominant force on the mound for the Huskies last season but injured his elbow late in the year. He elected for Tommy John surgery, which will keep the Oregon signee sidelined for his senior season. Jeff Paschke was an All-Tribune first- and second-teamer the past two seasons, but moved to Santa Barbara for his dad’s work. The loss of the USC commitment is a tough blow for the Trojans.

Can Chaparral three-peat?: The Firebirds have been a perennial power at the 4A and 5A-II level, and showed last year its success wasn’t the product of lower-level competition. Chaparral won the Division I championship in 2012 over Brophy and outfielder Dylan Cozens was named the Tribune’s Player of the Year. The Firebirds must replace a lot of production, but as one East Valley coach put it, ‘They have players on the bench that would be starting everywhere else.’ It will be a new core, but don’t be surprised if Chaparral is the mix come playoff time once again.

Desert Mountain’s new coach: Longtime Desert Mountain coach Bryan Rice resigned after last season, and Brian Stephenson was hired in his place. There won’t be a grace period, because this team is designed to win right away. Cody Erickson and David Greer are back, and they are buoyed by a strong supporting cast. The Wolves might have a new coach but their goal, as always, is a state championship.


Photo: Hamilton is preseason No. 1 in the Division I baseball rankings.