Tolleson baseball bring new energy after COVID bubble kept team out of state tournament

Tolleson Union High School coach Scott Richardson believes last season was a confidence boost for his team, which opens its Wednesday. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

A jersey remembering popular assistant coach Ash Friedrich, who passed away in 2020, hangs in center field so the players can see it during practices and games. (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

Pitching is often a strength of Tolleson’s team, Richardson said. “We do a really good job of throwing strikes, and we do a really good job of playing catch behind our pitcher. So, with that being said, we’re going to be in a lot of games.” (Photo by Dominic Rivera/Cronkite News)

TOLLESON – Tolleson Union High School’s baseball team experienced a storybook season last year only to miss the state championships because of a district-mandated competition bubble necessitated by rising COVID-19 numbers.

The Wolverines’ challenge this season is to build on their success while returning to high-level competition with no restrictions and without five high-production seniors from last year’s team who graduated. They kick off their schedule today against the Deer Valley Skyhawks at home in the Wayne Des Combes Pre-Season Invitational.

For the 2020-21 season, the Tolleson Union High School District limited its six high schools to intra-district competition. Westview, Sierra Linda, La Joya Community, West Point, Copper Canyon and Tolleson played one another three times, and a district tournament was held in May to crown a champion. Because of how the district structured its season, its member schools were ineligible for the AIA state tournament, preventing the teams from testing themselves against the state’s other top talent.

“I think some of our returners missed out on some quality reps last year,” Wolverines coach Scott Richardson said. “Everybody had a great, feel-good season. A bunch of guys hit over .400, but as far as really being challenged, that didn’t happen.”

The lack of competition within the district enabled the Wolverines to rack up victories and grow in confidence and cohesion. They went undefeated in the regular season, winning by an average of 12.76 runs, and dominated their competition in the playoffs en route to clinching an undefeated season with a district tournament championship.

The players had made an undefeated season their goal.

“The seniors were like, ‘Coach, we are not going to lose a game,'” Richardson. “I was like, that is all fine to say, but you know how you have got to walk the walk rather than just talking the talk.”

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Given how the Wolverines dominated their competition, it was hard not to wonder what might have been had they been able to participate in the state tournament.

“Usually, during the season, I mean you have one or two games where, you know, you just don’t play well,” said Richardson, who added, “We did not have one game where that happened.”

While the team surprised people with their success on the court, the Wolverines suffered a terrible loss off it with the death in the fall of 2020 of assistant coach Ash Friedrich.

Friedrich’s death left a hole in the team that could never be filled. But honoring his memory gave the team extra motivation heading into the season. He is gone but not forgotten. The team hung a maroon jersey with Friedrich’s number – 14 – in center field so the players can see it during practices and games. And once this season starts, Richardson said, the junior varsity team plans to add a photograph of Friedrich.

“We always talk about him,” Richardson said. “We always think about him. I think that would be a huge disservice if we didn’t. He loved being out here. What he did for us will never, never be forgotten. He’ll always be a part of this program.”

The Wolverines are not basking in last season’s success. Instead, they made a point of practicing with and playing against higher competition whenever possible to prepare for the upcoming season. Their offseason opponents included Liberty, the defending 6A state champion, which had pitchers who threw in the upper 80s and 90s.

“It was really important for us this summer to play the best teams possible,” Richardson said. “All of our kids all last year were like, ‘I wish we’d face some good pitching.’ Then right off the bat, you know, we’re playing Liberty this summer.”

He added, “I was like, ‘Hey, this is what you guys wanted.’ So, you know, it was real important to us to have a really competitive summer and fall.”

The Wolverines are confident in their level of play this season despite the loss of their five high-production seniors. They are excited to be back competing against high-level competition and hope to build on last year’s success.

“I think that last year was a confidence boost for us to let us know that’s what we’re capable of doing,” Richardson said.

The strength of the team, Richardson said, has historically been pitching and defense, and this year is no different.

“In high school baseball, if you can just avoid beating yourself, you’re going to have a chance to win more than you lose,” Richardson said. “We do a really good job of throwing strikes, and we do a really good job of playing catch behind our pitcher. So, with that being said, we’re going to be in a lot of games.”

Senior shortstop Isaac Lizarraga said the team is ready.

“We are feeling really good,” he said. “We had a great fall.”

The Wolverines have no expectations of going undefeated or even bringing home a state championship banner. They want to win as many games as possible and put themselves in position to win and hoist up the championship trophy at the end of the season. But the most important goal for this team is to enjoy the season and be grateful for each day and each other.

“We are just thankful that we’re out here,” Richardson said. “We’ve all been through it now where it’s been snatched out from [under us]. We all remember what it felt like. We talked weekly about how regardless of what kind of day you’re going through, there should be an escape for all of us.”

Dominic Rivera daw-mee-nee-k rih-ver-ah (he/him/his)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Dominic Rivera expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.