PHOENIX -- They came on strong on back-to-back days -- just this past Wednesday and Thursday -- and tried to make themselves at home on the beautifully manicured main playing field at Sandra Day O'Connor High School. But national powers Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and Broken Arrow (Okla.) could barely get a foothold in the desert sand against the hometown O'Connor Eagles.
O'Connor High, an 11-year-old school nestled nicely in north Phoenix immediately west of I-17, had already established itself as an elite program in the state of Arizona, and certainly did nothing to diminish its reputation over the past four days.
Playing a second extra-inning in ideal conditions, senior Cooper Gray delivered a lead-off single in the bottom of the ninth, junior Greg Saenz was plunked by a pitch to put runners on first and second, and junior standout Cameron Ming laid down a beautiful bunt just inside the third-base line that seemed destined to load the bases.
But an errant throw to first allowed Gray to score from second, and O'Connor escaped Broken Arrow, 5-4, to win the championship game in the National Division at the Coach Bob National Invitational Tournament Thursday at O'Connor High School. Following narrow escape after narrow escape, O'Connor finished the first four official days of the tournament with a 4-0 record.
"When you're playing competition like this, it's nice," O'Connor head coach Jeff Bumgartner said after watching his team improve to 15-0 for the 2013 season and win the championship. "When we come out, I know we're going to have maximum effort and I don't have to motivate guys. They know they want to measure up and they want to know what the best competition in the nation is like, and they want to go get 'em.
"No game was easy ... but our kids are fired up and they love playing in an atmosphere like this, and it feels like the (state) playoffs just because of the competition we're playing and the games we're playing."
While participating in the prestigious Coach Bob National Invitational National Division tournament that began on Monday -- and this year was sponsored by Perfect Game -- O'Connor first disposed of Edmond (Okla.) Santa Fe High School in the first round of pool-play (there were eight teams in the National Division divided into two, four-team pools). In their second pool-play game, the Eagles knocked-off Quartz Hill (Calif.) High School, and then things really got interesting.
In their third game with the pool-play championship on the line, the Eagles got past Perfect Game No. 25 nationally-ranked Bishop Gorman High School out of Las Vegas, 11-10. Bishop Gorman, with Joey Gallo on its roster, finished No. 2 in PG's final 2012 national rankings.
Thursday's foe was Broken Arrow, a storied program that as recently as two years ago featured first-round pick Archie Bradley, and while not ranked this year finished 35-5 in 2012 and has always been a team to be respected and reckoned with. It is 10-4 after Thursday's loss.
"This is a huge momentum boost," O'Connor right-fielder Cooper Gray said after the championship win. "These last two games against Bishop Gorman and Broken Arrow, those are two top national teams and that's only going to help us push though and move on. Hopefully we can keep this undefeated record going through (state) finals."
There can be little argument that this year's O'Connor team is led seniors Gray, Jade Bilbrey, Owen Sanborn and Stan Gawelko, and juniors Ming, Degan Harte and Greg Saenz. All of their talents were on display in the championship game -- Gawelko was especially productive with an RBI single in the first that gave O'Connor a 2-0 lead and a one-out, two-run double that led to a 4-2 lead in the fifth.
Broken Arrow battled back behind the superb play of highly regarded right-hander and outfielder Trey Cobb -- the No. 160-ranked national prospect in the class of 2013 and an Oklahoma State signee -- who had three hits, including an RBI single in the second.
It just seemed like from the beginning that this was O'Connor's tournament to win. The squad was 22-13 in 2012 but the expectations were high coming into 2013.
"We had a lot of these guys back from last year and a lot of these guys have had some experience with us," Bumgartner said. "We don't have years where we're trying to rebuild; we try to get out there and reload. We have a lot of guys in this program that are hungry to play, and we're going to lose some guys this year and next year, and we're going to have other guys that are ready to play. That's what you have to do to step in and fill the gaps."
Over the winter, the program said goodbye to junior left-hander Andrew Hull, who lost his life in December. The team has dedicated the season to Hull and presented his mother with a game-ball after Thursday's victory.
"At no point have we ever said that we're going to go win this for Andy or anything, but it's always in the back of our minds," Bumgartner said. "It's something that's in the back of our minds every day we step on the field, and we appreciate the fact that we're stepping on the field in sunny weather, 82 degrees in Arizona and we're playing the game of high school baseball. It's special and the perspective has been good for us."
This is only the 10th season of varsity baseball at the 11-year-old school, so it's not unfair to say the program is still in its adolescence. Everything has been steady as she goes, and Bumgartner is pleased with the progress.
"In the last four or five years, the depth we've built in the program has been good," he said. "We've built to a point where we have a good group of kids and a good balance in the classes, and that's what you kind of need to sustain something and have a program that lasts for years to come."
For a senior like Gray, it's all part of the process:
"It's been amazing," he said. "My team is awesome and I couldn't ask for better coaches or better players to play with. It's awesome to play against teams that come from out of state and are ranked nationally and I'm just having a blast. We come to play and we come to play hard, win or lose."
Ming, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior, and Harte, a 6-2, 205-pound junior, are the two most highly regarded prospects on O'Connor's roster. Ming is listed as a "top-1000" prospect and has committed to Arizona, and Harte as a "high follow" who has not committed to a college.
Everyone on the O'Connor team was excited about what developed over the past four days.
"Out-of-state competition is always fun, especially when you're going up against the higher caliber teams that we just played," Ming said. "It seems like they were all one-run games and they're all exciting and it always builds the momentum when they're close games.
"This group of guys, there's really something special going on because we always seem to pull it together and everybody picks each other up when they're down. This is a huge momentum swing for the second half of the season and I'm really looking forward to it."
There was some disagreement, however, on how this success should be viewed and digested from a national perspective. Ming looks at it as validation for what the program has achieved. He firmly believes O'Connor should now be mentioned in the same sentence with the teams it just vanquished, like Bishop Gorman and Broken Arrow.
"I hope so," he said. "We've wanted to be there for awhile and beating Bishop Gorman is up there and is always a plus, and the way we play together as a team is just incredible. Everyone pulls for each other and it's a blast being on this team; we know how to get it done and our coaches are great and they keep us disciplined, and playing as a team is really what gets us there."
Coach Bumgartner prefers to stay a little more under the radar:
"I hope not; I hope everyone looks right past us and nobody even thinks about us," he said with a smile. "We're winning some games, but we're not clobbering teams and we aren't beating anybody by 10 runs, but we're going out and beating good teams and we're doing the little things right to win those games. We're a tough team to beat right now."