Falling in the semifinals last season, the Liberty Lions baseball team was on a mission in 2018 and, after the team rallied from behind to defeat Buckeye Verrado 6-2 May 15 at Tempe Diablo Stadium, mission completed.
“We are tough,” Liberty head coach Chris Raymond said, as the team was celebrating after the final out. “This group is super tough, mentally and physically, and if you saw us work out, you would say, ‘Wow, they look more like a football team.’”
Verrado (27-5) opened the game scoring two in the first inning off Liberty starting pitcher Chandler Murphy by getting hits from the Vipers’ first four batters. Murphy struggled, but worked 4 2/3 innings, striking out five and allowing two runs and three hits in the victory.
“We all became a unit this season,” Murphy said. “This team really bonded together and were on a mission, and we completed our mission with this win.”
Liberty (23-8) took control of the game in the third inning, when Verrado starting pitcher Kyle Wellman argued calls to the umpire and, with a 3-0 count on the Lions’ Brady Welch, bounced a pitch that hit Welch in the leg.
Welch believed the pitch was intentional, but the Lions used it as a motivating factor that fired up the team.
“That really fired up the entire team, you just don’t do that, and I don’t care if he did it intentionally or not, he has had problems with me forever,” Welch said. “Maybe it is because I hit two home runs off him, I don’t know, but I am not one to get mad, and it just fired up the whole team.”
Jace Johnson then hit a single to left, scoring one, and Noel Pauga followed with another single to right, scoring Johnson. The Lions never trailed after that.
“That team has a lot of hard outs, and we talked about everything after the (hit batter),” Raymond said. “We talked about playing our game and we walked that fine line all game. Our guys played awesome when it comes to being in a situation and taking advantage of them.”
Leading 6-2 in the seventh, Verrado loaded the bases, bringing the tying run to the plate, but relief pitcher J.D. Wadleigh struck out Verrado’s Hayden Brown, looking to secure the Liberty championship.
After the game, every Lions player signed a brick from the Liberty home dugout that had come loose and had become the team’s “lucky charm.” Raymond said it was a superstition that helped carry the team.
“Our team is really embodied one through 24,” Raymond said. “We bring a brick from the dugout. We do a lot of weird little things.
“I think the best thing that happened to us was when we started bringing a brick with our logo to the games. It became like our symbol. It was part of our dugout.”
The win gives the Lions, playing in their fourth state championship game in the last 10 years, a victory for the second time.
The Lions won the 4A Division II title in 2010.