Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 | 2 a.m.
When baseball players walk to class at Centennial High, they frequently see banners hanging in the courtyard offering encouragement to the school’s athletic teams in the state tournament.
Centennial is good in virtually every sport, winning championships and regularly sending teams on deep playoff runs. But that hasn’t been the case recently in baseball. There had been little reason to celebrate — well, until last week.
Centennial will be the surprise participant in this week’s state tournament, especially considering who they beat to qualify for the four-team event starting Thursday in Reno. And, especially considering their struggles in 2013, the worst season in the program’s 15-year history.
“Last year, we were the first team in program history not to make the playoffs,” senior pitcher Cooper Powell said. “It would be a pretty cool thing to turn it around and be the first to win a state championship.”
A deep playoff run seemed unlikely three weeks ago when Centennial lost by the 10-run mercy rule to state power Bishop Gorman, 13-0.
But the Bulldogs beat Gorman twice last week in the Sunset Regional playoffs, using strong pitching performances of Powell and Will Loucks to capture the Sunset title and crash the state tournament.
Gorman is nationally ranked and winners of seven straight state championships through 2012. Most teams thought they’d be playing for second place.
Centennial had other ideas, beating Gorman 6-5 and 3-1 in the double-elimination regional.
“Going into every season your goals are to win the division, win region, win state,” Centennial coach Charlie Cerrone said. “Some years, I guess you can say, that is more realistic than others.
“We felt like we had the pitching to do it; felt we had the defense to do it,” he continued. “But we didn’t know if we had enough bats to do it. As the year progressed, our bats got good enough to where we can compete with people.”
It will be Centennial’s first appearance at state since 2005, when it lost to Sierra Vista in the championship game. The Bulldogs also lost in the 2002 state finals.
Centennial, like all teams in the Sunset faced with competing against Gorman during its dynasty, were long-shots of qualifying for the tournament because that involved going through Gorman. Most years during its state-title streak Gorman also finished ranked nationally.
“I’m a competitor. I was going to keep plugging away until we got them,” Cerrone said. “We have played them tough every year in the playoffs. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Because Centennial (25-11) got over that hump, the other three teams at state — Sunrise champ Liberty, and Northern Nevada’s Reno and Damonte Ranch highs — will benefit. Instead of playing for second behind Gorman, each has a chance to win the title in a wide-open tournament.
And that’s where Centennial could have an edge. The Bulldogs are playing their best when it most matters.
“We might not be the most talented group of kids, or the most physically strongest kids, but we mesh very well together and fight until the end,” Loucks said. “We wanted to come out and give it our best, and that’s what happened.”
Cerrone, the lone coach in the program’s 15-year history, will rely on past state tournament appearances to prepare his team. In 2002 when they lost to Wooster in the championship game, he had practices the week of the tournament at night because that’s when games were scheduled.
“We are going to stay in our routine. We are going to stay focused,” the coach said.
Having Powell and Loucks anchor the lineup will give Centennial an edge. They are veteran players with a history of clutch performances. But every team has a good pitcher or two, or seasoned players capable of taking over a game.
That’s why Cerrone feels confident in his team’s chances. They don’t have a star player; they have a lineup of quality players.
“We don’t have a ‘guy,’” he said. “We have a bunch of different players stepping up every game.”
Cerrone is one of the state’s most tenured coaches in any sport, but says winning his first championship isn’t needed to validate the success. He was the same coach last year when Centennial missed the playoffs.
“I’m going to die on this field,” he said. “I will coach another 20 years.”