CASA GRANDE — One win separated Vista Grande and the 4A state championship game.
The only problem for the Spartans was they couldn’t quite get past their nemesis, Tucson Salpointe Catholic.
The Lancers had the Spartans’ number all year in 2019 — Vista Grande was defeated twice by the Lancers in 4A Kino region play, a 6-0 loss in Tucson and 2-0 loss in Casa Grande.
Then in the 4A state double-elimination playoffs, the eventual state champions beat Vista Grande 3-2 in the quarterfinals and 8-4 in the semifinals.
But this year perhaps there’s some unfinished business. It’s also a team looking to write its own chapter in Spartans history.
“I would say this is a totally different team,” Vista Grande assistant coach Victor Olivares said. “I would say that this 2020 team is trying to make their own team. With the division that we are in, there are some games from last year that we want to get some W’s. Salpointe — we couldn’t beat those guys. But at the end of the day it’s a new year, new team, but it’s the same expectations.”
If Vista Grande is going to return to the 4A semifinals it will have to do it with someone who can match the same output from graduating seniors Martin Rodriquez, Marco Ozuna and Adam Belloc.
Belloc led Vista Grande in hitting last year with a .427 average and drove in 16 runs, while Rodriquez had one home run, 10 doubles and 20 RBIs. Ozuna was 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA in 37 2/3 innings while striking out 52, and Belloc struck out 56 hitters while posting a 2.64 ERA in 50 1/3 innings.
“Yeah we lose those guys, but we have returnees, and I think we have our ace from last year who pitched in some big games,” Olivares said.
The ace whom Olivares speaks of is Anthony Garcia. Last year as a junior, Garcia was 5-1 with a 2.07 ERA in 40 2/3 innings. He struck out 50, walked seven and gave up 35 hits.
“He’s going to be our horse this year,” Olivares said of Garcia. “The main difference between last year and this year is we only depended upon those three guys (Rodriquez, Belloc, Ozuna) and this year we have a handful of quality good pitchers that we will depend upon.”
Unlike last year when the Spartans had six seniors, this year they have only three — led by Garcia and including RJ Gonzalez and Nathan Matthews. Other returnees who look to contribute include Anthony Bolanos, a junior who is expected to pitch and play center field, and Emilio Barreras, a sophomore shortstop who will see some time on the mound as well.
Vista Grande will welcome newcomers Erubiel Ozuna, a junior and pitcher who is expected to serve the role of a super utility man, Olivares said. Other newcomers include Jesus Santos, a junior who is expected to pitch and play first base, Nathan Acevedo, a sophomore pitcher and infielder, and Jayden Fahnholz, a freshman outfielder and pitcher.
“I think everyone is hungry to get started,” Olivares said. “We have six returnees from last year, and they got a taste of it. Whenever you get a taste of it you want more of it. These guys have been working hard in the offseason. These guys have been playing meaningful games with (American) Legion, fall ball and stuff like that.”
The Spartans opened the season Wednesday in the Tomas Pinon/Matt Huffman Memorial tournament, where they picked up wins over Tempe McClintock and Gilbert Williams Field. Vista Grande will conclude the tournament with games against Tempe High and Mesa High this weekend.
Vista Grande will play its first AIA power points game Tuesday when it hosts Tucson Pueblo. The Spartans will get their first chance against Salpointe on March 26 at home and again April 23 in Tucson. Vista Grande will travel to its crosstown rival Casa Grande Union on March 31, and the Spartans will host the Cougars on April 20.
“There’s only one goal and that’s the state championship every year,” Olivares said. “After last year some of these guys got a taste of it and when you have coaches that believe in these kids and believe in winning, they just have to buy in. Anything is possible.”