Filled with promise from its onset, and generating postseason optimism throughout, the 2014 season for the Tempe Prep baseball team did nothing if not cement its status as a top-tier TPA athletic program. Yet it was the cumulative taxing effect of the season’s length that led to inconsistent performances and the team’s eventual fall, as the Knights suffered a defeat to Pusch Ridge Christian Academy in the Division IV tournament quarterfinals to abruptly conclude the 14’ campaign.
Nearing the start of the playoffs, TPA held tightly to its ranking as third-best in Division IV. But in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Knights were caught off guard and faltered to Joy Christian 6-3. Senior Hayden Harden felt “it was a really close game, closer than we’re used to seeing, but I think it could’ve went either way and it just happened to go their way.” As a result of the loss, the Tempe Prep fell to seventh in the standings, likely making its playoff path more difficult.
Perhaps the best explanation for the drop-off in the team’s performance—two losses and two ugly wins in the five contests before the playoffs—would pertain to the factor of fatigue. Having to play several games in a row or without much rest in between took a physical toll on the players, and consequently poor fielding and inconsistency made the team look shakier than ever down the stretch. Senior Ryan Whalen thought along similar lines, saying that “late in the season we started to kill ourselves with errors, which I don’t think was necessarily for lack of preparation, I think it was just an attribute of the wear and tear of the season.”
In Tempe Prep’s first playoff game against Mogollon High School, the team began a bit rusty following a 10-day hiatus, and again fielding errors deterred it from establishing stability in the early going. Facing a 3-0 deficit through two innings, the Knights responded by pulling even and then grabbing a lead in the next innings, before needing a two-out, walk-off seventh-inning score to clinch a 6-5 victory.
Whalen viewed the result as the “definition of an ugly win,” and said that the team “did pretty much everything [it] could to lose it,” but pointed to prior playoff experience and clutch runs as how TPA pulled through. Senior teammate Ben LeBeau added that the course of the game typified how the whole season went: “we would play down to our opponent’s level, and then we turned it around and dominated.”
In advancing to the Division IV quarterfinals, the Knights would encounter another familiar squad, Pusch Ridge, only this time, they could not overcome their mistakes. Though trailing only 3-1 by the end of the third inning, Tempe Prep suffered from its fielding errors once more, yielding runs in situations where otherwise it would have escaped unharmed. The Knights played their opponents much tougher than the first time they met—in the second game of the season—but still bowed out of the playoffs with an 11-1 loss.
Nevertheless, the Knights did fulfill what they set out to do at the start of the year, thus dispelling any notion that the season was a letdown. “We had three goals at the start of the season,” said Coach Tom Kandler. “They were to win the section, which we did in convincing fashion with the second place team finishing three games behind us. We wanted to win 20 games which we did (tournament games included), and finally we wanted to advance in the playoffs further than any previous Tempe Prep baseball team, which we accomplished.”
Reflecting on his TPA baseball career, LeBeau stated he felt most proud about “putting the baseball program on the map, not only in Division IV but more importantly for Tempe Prep. I know baseball has taken a backseat for years, and I think that finally baseball is on the map…we reached the quarterfinals just like the boys’ basketball team and just like the football team, so that really puts us on the same plane as those other two sports.”
As Coach Kandler speculates about the future, he believes “next year [the team] will be even better than [it was] this year with seven returning starters and a tremendous amount of talent in the returning and incoming classes.” His departing player, senior Ryan Whalen, says “it’s been a fun four years, we’ve gotten significantly better every year, and I’m excited to see what the future has in store for the Tempe Prep baseball program.”
*Published on May 21st.