Faith and baseball: Valley Christian’s journey from Dominican Republic fuels 3A state championship run

The Valley Christian baseball team celebrates an 11-1 victory in the 3A state championship game, capping off a season defined by faith and unity. (Photo courtesy of Valley Christian Athletics)

PHOENIX – After kicking off the 2024 season with an impressive 3-0 record, outscoring teams 48-7, the Valley Christian baseball team took a scheduled hiatus during spring break to embark on a transformative mission trip to the Dominican Republic in March.

As part of the school’s mission program, which allowed the junior varsity and varsity teams to immerse themselves in the culture for a week, the Trojans landed bearing gifts and valuable lessons about the game of baseball and returned with a stronger bond, deeper resolve and renewed spirit that carried them to the program’s second state championship.

“We brought down youth equipment to bless their underprivileged kids in this society and held youth camps for baseball. We also did clean up days where we left properties that we were staying at better than how we received them,” coach Vince LaGatta said. “We held devotions every night. We sat under the stars and shared fears and insecurities and opened up to one another and shared life together.

“It’s probably the proudest moment in my coaching career because when you get to the point of real trust, it’s powerful.”

LaGatta’s role on the team is more than just being coach. Graduating from UC Davis with a minor in religious studies, LaGatta is a preacher and a leader. He designed a coaching philosophy for the mission trip that reinforced the team values he wanted instilled in his players on and off the baseball diamond.

“The three-pronged approach that we focused on during that trip was our hearts, our minds, and our words,” LaGatta said. “We guard our hearts because all life comes out of your hearts. We guard our minds because that’s where the battle is. And we guard our words because our words give meaning to our lives.”

His coaching philosophy, coupled with the trip, stuck with the players and coaches for the remainder of the season.

“This was the best possible trip that we could have taken,” said Caleb Danzeisen, catcher and outfielder for the Trojans, “It was impactful on our guys to see what life is really about.”

Danzeisen, who led the team in batting with an impressive .524 average and home runs with seven, was not alone in his feelings about the experience. Shortstop Gavin Smith, a four-year starter and senior leader, shared a similar reaction.

“It was a huge eye-opener,” Smith said, “It gives us a lot to be thankful for.”

Driven by faith, Valley Christian uses the connection between sports and religion to support communities in the Valley and overseas, but also as a complement to their on-field success.

“One way you can understand the intertangling of the two is to look at how religious expressions find their way to religious fields and courts and pitches,” Arizona State University professor Terry Shoemaker said. “This could be seen when a player points to the sky or thanks a deity for their abilities.

“The other way we could think about it is to look at the ways that religion is forced to compete. There’s only so much time for people, and a lot of times commitment to sports interferes with the commitment to religion. And so people have to figure out how to find a balance between the two at different moments in their lives.”

Reaching this level of balance is something that Valley Christian’s baseball team strives to achieve every day.

“We believe that our foundation is our faith in Jesus Christ, first and foremost, that everything we do, and say, should glorify and honor who he is in our lives,” LaGatta said. “We are representations of our community at Valley Christian, both on and off the field. We emphasize being examples of what our Christian faith believes, so we don’t just talk about it, we are expected to walk it out as well.”

One outcome that resulted from the mission trip was an improvement in team faith and an increased connection with God. This faith has undoubtedly impacted the team’s play on the field.

After losing to Northwest Christian in consecutive seasons during the 3A state tournament, Valley Christian came into the season highly motivated. The team finished the regular season with an astounding record of 23-1 and a sparkling home record of 10-0 in 3A South Central conference play. They were defeated only one time during the year when they faced off on the road against Yuma Catholic.

While many teams would have had their morale completely decimated by missing out on a potential undefeated season, Valley Christian utilized its exceptional faith to keep spirits high and ultimately close out the year strong.

The Trojans mercy ruled Yuma Catholic in the fifth inning of the 3A state championship game for the second time in conference history and earned an 11-1 win at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Valley Christian ended a 13-year title drought with the victory and accomplished its season-long goal of hoisting the trophy at the end of the season.

“Our goal is to win the final game,” Sweeney said. “Every time we do a practice rep we do it with the mindset of winning the last game of the season.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Noah Maltzman expects to graduate in August 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism with a related area of popular music. Maltzman has interned at 94.1 WIP, the largest sports radio station in Philadelphia.