More than a decade of playing together came down to one final home game for the Camp Verde High School baseball team’s senior class, on April 25.
And the stakes could not have been higher.
Facing off against Northland Preparatory Academy, the Central Region championship and a higher seed in the state tournament were on the line. Not to mention the lasting memory each of the nine seniors would have of their last stand at Doug Davis Field.
The Cowboys [15-3, 7-1 Central] battled to the bitter end of a nine-inning thriller, coming out on top, 6-5. Losing would have meant handing the title to the Spartans, who had beaten the hosts 3-2 on April 7.
“I love these kids ... that’s how they’ve always played,” Camp Verde head coach Will Davis said. “They play hard, they work hard, we may not be the most physically-talented team ... but these kids just play hard, they don’t give up, they believe in themselves and they work their butts off.”
A pitchers duel throughout, it appeared it would be a hard-fought win as the hosts went up 4-1 in the sixth inning. But the fight was not over yet.
Camp Verde senior pitcher Carson Zale pitched six innings, giving up one earned run on three hits with eight strikeouts and two walks. Zale scored the team’s first run in the first inning, too.
Insert senior Darren Franklin.
A four-pitch walk and a hit batter immediately put the Cowboys into a jam, and in came fellow 12th-grader Wyatt Howe, who hit his first batter.
“He [Franklin] was nervous and tight all night, so that’s on me,” Davis said.
Suddenly the Spartans had the bases loaded with zero outs. The tide and buzz in and around the packed bleachers could not have turned faster.
“I think it being senior night and all these kids knowing this is their last game at home after all these years, I think they were a little tighter than they needed to be to be successful,” Davis said.
Consecutive pop outs, the second caught in foul territory near the Cowboys dugout by senior John Castillo, almost got the team out of it.
But a three-run double knotted the game at four. Camp Verde stranded two in the seventh inning, forcing extra innings.
The eighth came and went. Northland Prep grabbed the lead, and for the time being the title, the higher seed and the happy memories, in the ninth.
Spartan senior Zev Axler knocked his fourth hit into left field and reached second on a passed ball. Fellow Spartan sophomore Zach Tweed drove him in with a double into right center field.
But Tweed was caught with his hand in the cookie jar, gunned down at third by the cutoff man, sophomore shortstop Dominiq Bruno, to end the inning.
Cowboys senior Ryan Cain drew his second consecutive leadoff walk and stole second. Consecutive outs put the Camp Verde faithful on edge.
It is worth mentioning that stolen bases have been a huge key to the Cowboys’ offense all season long; they are tied for fifth most in Arizona and third in Conference 2A with 140.
They made the difference.
Without getting the sign from Davis, Cain, the team leader with 25, then stole third.
“The only I had on my mind was ‘We’re winning this game, and I’m going to do anything in my power possible,’” Cain said. “So it was totally unexpected, just reading the pitcher ... sometimes you’ve just got to take chances.”
Sophomore Dakota Battise walked and stole second. Suddenly the game-tying and go-ahead runs were in scoring position. After senior Nathan Pineda walked up came Castillo, the leadoff man.
Castillo ripped the first pitch down the left field line for the walk off win.
“Honestly I was just thinking ‘Don’t be the last out’ and I was just praying ‘Let’s get this win,’” Castillo said. “And we got it, got it done. I saw a fastball come right over the plate, I stayed back and pulled it to left field.”
The title was won, the higher seed earned, happy memories made and even tears shed. The seniors honored before the game were: Castillo, Cain, Pineda, Zale, Howe, Franklin, Jose Diaz, Zach Wester and Easton Braden.
“There’s no better feeling but there’s no worse feeling to play your last game on this home field,” Cain said. “All of it to tie up into a walk off, there’s no better feeling.”
But the season is not over yet. Camp Verde, the No. 4 seed, begins the Arizona Interscholastic Association 2A State Championship against No. 13 Miami High School at 6:30 p.m., Friday, May 5, at Goodyear Baseball Complex.