No one likes the double-elimination format of the 5A state baseball and softball tournaments more than Mesa Red Mountain softball coach Rich Hamilton.
After all, had last year’s tourney been the single-elimination variety of previous years, the Mountain Lions could have saved their state title game limousine ride to Rose Mofford Softball Complex and used it for the prom later that month. A second-round loss would have doomed their season.
Instead, the Lions won the 5A Division I title.
“I think it’s a truer representation of what the sport is all about,” Hamilton said. “The way it worked out last year, the top four seeds were all in the semifinals. The three and four ended up playing for the championship and came through the loser’s bracket to do it.”
Most coaches like the idea of getting a second chance, particularly in baseball and softball where bad hops or check swings can turn the tide of a game. The double-elimination format tests teams that may be successful in the first round because they have one top-flight pitcher, but are wanting beyond that. Last year the higher-seeded team won seven of eight first-round games in 5A-I and 5A-II baseball.
The first year of double-elimination baseball and softball tournaments in 5A last year yielded an array of outcomes. In baseball, in both Division I and Division II, the No. 1 seed won the state title and didn’t lose a game. In 5A-I, Phoenix Brophy and Scottsdale Horizon (1-2 seeds) met for the title; in 5A-II, the No. 4 seed (Glendale Deer Valley) and No. 6 seed (Peoria Sunrise Mountain) played for the championship.
In 5A-II softball, third-seeded Peoria Sunrise Mountain and No. 9 seed Peoria Centennial met. Unlike Red Mountain and Tempe Corona del Sol, they sailed through their pools and met for a winner-take-all final. Other schools made waves they wouldn’t have in the old format, namely No. 2 seed Scottsdale Desert Mountain, which came through the losers’ bracket in softball and made the final four.
Scottsdale Horizon baseball coach Eric Kibler endorsed the new format at its inception. He hasn’t changed his mind.
“I love the format,” Kibler said. “How you go about setting up your pitching just depends on who you play. If you play someone who you don’t think can shut you down, you might not go with your best guy. But you have to be careful. You wouldn’t want to disrespect someone else’s No. 1 and end up paying for it.”
Horizon scouted Phoenix Alhambra this week, the Huskies’ firstround opponent Saturday. Kibler and the Huskies have the luxury of two or three pitchers who are No. 1 caliber on their pitching-rich squad. Any choice he and his staff make wouldn’t be a poor one.
The 5A-I baseball tournament went swimmingly for Phoenix Brophy and Horizon last season, with Horizon having one bump on the road to the final with the Broncos. Red Mountain had the toughest road last season after the Mountain Lions lost their opening game to Tucson. The Mountain Lions battled back to win three games after the opening round.
Mountain Lions baseball coach Henry Faccio said despite the forgiving nature of the tournament, the opening game remains key.
“I look at it like it’s still the old format,” Faccio said. “You want to go to the winners’ bracket if possible. I don’t think you fool around deciding on who to pitch the first game. Maybe if the matchup favors one type of pitcher over another, but I think you should go with your best.
“The longer you play in the losers’ bracket, the tougher it is.”
Phoenix Desert Vista baseball coach Stan Luketich is aware most of his colleagues endorse the new format. He still prefers the old.
“I like the emotional ride a team can get on,” Luketich said. “There’s an excitement to being an underdog and putting together a nice run. Your pitching was still tested in that format (four or five games in a week). Now teams with deep pitching have a tremendous advantage with all the time between games.”
Luketich’s squad lost its first-round game last year and survived to play two more before getting eliminated.
“Was I happy we were still around to play after losing the first game?” Luketich said. “Yes. But I still like the old format.”