Prior to the establishment of the current junior high baseball team, and before a run culminating in a league semi-finals appearance last Thursday, a group of then eighth graders—now high school juniors—assembled a baseball team that would go undefeated in all the games they could schedule. Since the departure of these players, junior high baseball has been in the midst of a three-year climb back to prominence.
This arduous rebuilding process and resurgence of the program, that included 5-4 and 2-7 records in the previous two seasons, can be best epitomized by the development of once-sixth graders into current team leaders as eighth graders. According to assistant coach Mr. Sweet, many of these seasoned eighth graders who have been on the team for all three junior high years “have lived through those days where practices and games were pretty grueling.” For Mr. Sweet, “seeing the physical and the mental and emotional maturity of these guys change from a 6th grader to an 8th grader is just huge.” It all serves as a testament to the progress that the program and its players have made.
Head coach Tony Kerber added that “the eighth graders have made huge strides and have helped lay a very good foundation for the program. There have been some tough times and some tough games but I feel like we’ve learned really good lessons in the process.”
Participation by many current eighth graders and a few younger players in a summer league further catalyzed the team’s growth. Although encountering stiff competition and sustaining several difficult losses, the team benefited greatly from the experience. As a result, the top teams that Tempe Prep would face in the school league schedule did not look as intimidating as before. In addition, Coach Kerber noted that it “taught everyone how to compete and really made [the team] tougher.”
Among the group that would go 8-3 in the regular season, Trevor Kerber had a particularly key role for the Knights. The experienced three-year player—and natural infielder—stepped up and filled in as catcher, a position previously surrounded by uncertainty due to some injuries and academic ineligibilities to usual catching options. Kerber, who before was mainly a contact hitter, also provided some power in the Knights batting order this season.
Max Sweet, who is from a different school but was cleared to play for TPA this past season, led the team’s offensive charge. Hitting in the cleanup spot, the third baseman posted the highest batting average and slugging percentage for the team. Sweet was also one of the top two starting pitchers for the Knights, the other eighth grader Max Rich.
The team jumped out to a fast start in the regular season, winning its first three contests. In the opening game against Phoenix Christian, Max Rich pitched a complete-game win, and succeeded in staving off the few dangerous players the opponent had at the top of its order. Pitching efficiency and offensive consistency—averaging more than seven runs—keyed the victories in all three of Tempe Prep’s first games.
The first loss suffered by the Knights came in their fourth game against Fountain Hills, a team they would later meet again in the playoffs. From the beginning stages of the game, TPA found itself on the comeback trail, having yielded seven runs in the first two innings. Though the team fought back and came within two, it faltered in the end by a tally of 7-5.
Tempe Prep’s next matchup featured another future playoff opponent, perennial league contender Scottsdale Christian. While it felt like a competitive game, TPA maintained a comfortable lead throughout en route to an 8-5 win. The team would then fall on a two-game losing streak, in which fielding errors and below-average hitting performances doomed its chances.
Dropping to a 4-3 record, the Knights would rebound in emphatic fashion, breaking out of their slump with four consecutive victories to close out the regular season. The final win of the season—over Paradise Valley Christian by a score of 8-2—featured a particularly noteworthy accomplishment in the eyes of Coach Sweet: a 6-4-3 double play to end the game. “To think that we’ve come from just hoping that the infielder fields the ball and can make it somewhere near the first baseman, to [now] turning double plays, that’s pretty big.”
In Tempe Prep’s first playoff game facing off against Scottsdale Christian, the team got off to a quick start and never looked back, crossing the plate four times in the 1st inning, and eventually winning 9-4. Unlike TPA, which took full advantage of nine hits and committed no errors, Scottsdale Christian could not effectively capitalize on its opportunities and had several miscues.
But the Knights’ season would unfortunately come to an end in their next matchup, falling to Fountain Hills 3-2. The contest showcased great play from both sides, as runs resulting from hits and not passed balls or other errors provided evidence of a clean and well-played baseball game. Caleub Bueno (camping under and hauling in a tough pop-up behind the plate as catcher), Max Sweet (backhanding a foul ball off the third base line on the fly), Blake Carter (catching a fly ball on the run in right field), and Trevor Kerber (making a diving catch in left field to end an inning with runners in scoring position) all compiled excellent defensive plays that kept Tempe Prep close in the game.
After a scoreless first inning, TPA and Fountain Hills scored one and two runs, respectively, in the following inning, as well as adding one more each in the rest of the game. The tight, back-and-forth contest featured complete-game performances from both starting pitchers. Seventh grader Griffin Bodow, a consistent third option in the pitching staff, pitched his best outing in his entire season, and was able to escape any trouble he found himself in.
Despite missing out on the championship final by one game, a berth in the semi-finals nonetheless serves as a crowning achievement for a group that really began its journey two years ago.
*Published on February 13th.