Wednesday, May 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Bonanza High baseball coach Derek Stafford is having a hard time booking the school’s cafeteria for his team’s end-of-the-year banquet.
That’s what happens when your team reaches the state tournament — an event even the Bengals’ coach didn’t expect his team to be playing.
The banquet was initially scheduled for Wednesday, but when the Bengals won the Sunset Regional tournament last week to earn a spot at state, Stafford had a good problem on his hands. The banquet would have to wait.
Bonanza is one of four teams in this week’s Division-I state tournament, opening the double-elimination event at 7 p.m. Thursday against Reno High at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson.
Despite being the fourth and lowest-seeded team at the regional tournament, and entering with a 15-14 record, including 3-9 against the other teams in the event, the Bengals went on a run of a lifetime by winning four games to surprisingly capture the title.
They started by defeating 30-win Shadow Ridge and finished by beating seven-time defending state champion Bishop Gorman, 8-5, in the championship game.
“It’s a cliche to say I knew we were going to do it,” Stafford said. “That’s (not true), man. I knew we would win a few games, but doing what these kids did, no way I expected that. I can’t remember the last time someone but Gorman went 4-0 in the Sunset Region (playoffs).”
Gorman is nationally ranked and a state power in football, basketball and baseball. Local teams typically are defeated by lopsided scores. In football, the Gaels haven’t lost to a Nevada team since 2008; in basketball, they last lost in 2011 to an instate team.
Ask Stafford how Bonanza has defeated Gorman three times this season, including twice in the double-elimination Sunset tournament, and he’ll shake his head searching for answers. What they accomplished last week, especially considering the team they beat — not once, but twice — is a memory the coach and his players won’t soon forgot.
David beat Goliath.
“I told my wife Wednesday (after Bonanza earned a spot in the Sunset title game) we’d have to beat them again,” Stafford said. “If we are going to (win the Sunset Region), we are going to have to beat them again. But our guys knew we could play with them.”
Early in the championship game, however, the Bonanza players had a case of the jitters. It’s one thing to win a game or two in the playoffs. It’s another to be playing a powerhouse team for a championship, where a victory comes with a championship trophy for the school’s trophy case and a banner to hang in the school gym.
“We gave up four unearned runs in the second inning (against Gorman),” Stafford said. “In 10 years of coaching, I’m not kidding you, I have never seen this. Double-play ball back to my pitcher. He throws it to second base and my two kids run into each other like the Bad News Bears.”
Bonanza’s roster isn’t loaded with college or professional prospects, and just a handful will play in junior college or at a low-level, four-year school. And Stafford said, physically speaking, his team isn’t as gifted as others in the state tournament — Sunrise champion Coronado plays Gorman in the first semifinal game Thursday. (Gorman, despite losing to the Bengals, stayed alive by beating Liberty last Saturday in the play-in game.)
Bonanza has 14 seniors, most of whom have played together since Little League. They understand their roles, believe in each other and don’t want this memorable season to end.
Senior Adam Moreno hadn’t pitched in 22 days when he was called out of the bullpen in the third inning against Gorman. He pitched four nearly scoreless innings, and walked twice and singled at the plate, becoming the unlikely source to spark the Bonanza victory.
“I honestly couldn’t believe we did it,” said senior Jack Oroczo, who is batting .429 this year and is a four-year varsity player. “When I caught the ball (at first base for the last out), I said to myself, ‘Did we just win the championship?’ It’s just unbelievable. I can’t put it into words.”
Yet, there is still more baseball to be played.
One of Bonanza’s biggest challenges won’t be preparing for the teams it will face; it's guarding against complacency. Even if Bonanza goes 0-2 at state, the run it went on last week and the accomplishment of playing in the tournament signals a great season.
The Bengals will again be the underdog — their 14 losses are the same amount as the tournament’s other three teams combined.
“Whatever happens, happens. We’ll still be happy,” Bonanza pitcher David Estrada said. “I’m just stoked we made it this far.”
Bonanza hasn’t reached the state tournament since 2002 and lost in three straight state championship games from 1991-93. The Bengals' basketball and football teams struggle to make the playoffs each year, making this one of the rare instances where Bonanza — a school that has been around since the 1970s — has a chance to win a championship.
“They will never forget this. This is a memory they will have forever,” Stafford said. “We have been saying all week, ‘You have nothing to lose. You are already here; let’s go win this thing.’”
This isn’t Stafford’s first time being the underdog in the state tournament. In 1997, he was a senior pitcher on Silverado High’s team, which lost to Green Valley in the championship game. Silverado was just a third-year school.
Details of the season are secondary to the lifelong friendships that were made that spring — something he often preaches to his players. Mike O’Rourke, his assistant coach at Bonanza, also was part of the Silverado team.
After the Bonanza players stormed the mound last week to celebrate the Sunset championship, and after they picked up their championship trophy, O’Rourke alerted Stafford to someone special in the stands. Brian Whitaker, his coach at Silverado and the only coach in nearly 20 years of the school's existence, was there.
“That was probably the first time I hugged coach Whit,” Stafford said. “He said, ‘Derek, I want you to know this is the first high school game I went to in 20-plus years of coaching that wasn’t my own game.’ That made my heart melt. It meant the world to me.
“Our kids might not realize what they accomplished last week, and they probably don’t fully appreciate it yet. But, a few years down the road, they really will appreciate it. This is just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity they eventually will celebrate with a banquet. Just not this week.