It may not be the greatest worst-to-first transformation ever, but worst to first is always satisfying especially if you are part of both the teams.

So it is with the Gilbert High baseball team, which sat out postseason last year despite a 17-14 overall record. But the Tigers’ region record was 6-9, middle of the pack in most regions. Not in the 5A Fiesta Region last year. It meant last in the six-team region.

What Gilbert hoped for heading into 2004 was realized Friday afternoon as the senior-laden squad that couldn’t quite get over the hump last year nabbed the Fiesta Region title with a 12- 4 victory over host Mesquite.

The Tigers had pitching last year and possessed it again this year with the return of ace Brandon Thomson and Smith and the addition of Nick Cook among others. The added essentials of a better offense and imp roved fielding turned the Tigers up a notch as they ran their record to 21-7 overall and 12-1 in the tough Fiesta Region.

"This is exciting for us," proclaimed Gilbert pitcher Stephen Smith, who tossed a six-hitter at Mesquite and was backed by a 16-hit attack. "We have a great group that plays together, and nobody singles anybody out. In big games this year we didn’t fold under pressure."

First-year coach Matt Gutierrez inherited the veteran team and could tell early on they were focused on having a better year. He just wasn’t sure how much better.

"The difference has to be experience, most of our guys have been on varsity before this year," Gutierrez said. "We have good senior leadership. The last couple years we haven’t had many seniors. It really makes a difference."

Last year just one regular hit better than .350 for the season. Heading into Friday’s contest with Mesquite, three players were above that watermark. Leadoff hitter Marcos Rosales has supplied a spark with an average over .400. Dustin Hennis, who had four hits and four RBIs in the regionclinching win Friday, has supplied power along with Chandler Herdt and one of the few underclassmen, catcher Ryan Cisterna, who has been on a home run tear the last two weeks.

Gilbert’s rise has not surprised Gutierrez, who saw this team do a much better job of executing the fundamentals, the key to their transformation.

‘’I knew we had to do a better job on defense and we have," Gutierrez said. ‘’We gave up 160 runs last year and about half of them were unearned. Our improvement there is a big part of how we’re doing."

Hennis, who gave Gilbert the lead for good Friday in the first inning with a mammoth two-run homer, has led the team’s power resurgence. Two-thirds of his hits have been for extra bases. The Tigers have seldom had to scratch and claw for runs with their improved offense.

"The defense cut way down on the errors this year," Smith said. "With a lot of our power guys hitting home runs it helps the pitcher out a lot. Nobody plays for themselves. This has been a team effort."

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