Cougars run out of gas in extra-innings loss to Crusaders
CHINO VALLEY — As the No. 19 Cougars tread through a gauntlet of top-ranked teams in the twilight of their regular season, an opportunity emerged to make a big statement when No. 10 Northwest Christian rode into town for a West region match-up Thursday afternoon.
Lo and behold, Chino Valley was able to give the Crusaders a run for their money and even took a slight lead into the final frame. Unfortunately for the Cougars, the Crusaders came alive in extra innings and eventually escaped with a 9-6 victory.
The Crusaders tried to put the game away early, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the opening inning. Jaydon Harguess got the nod on the bump for the Cougars, but he took a little while to settle in. Nevertheless, Chino Valley knocked in a run to cut their deficit to two while Harguess held the Crusaders scoreless for the next four frames.
“Harguess got in trouble a little bit early, but then he settled down and he was hitting his spots,” Chino Valley skipper Mark Middleton said. “He pitched really well and I think that desire of wanting it really, really bad came out so he shut them down for a while.”
The Cougars turned the tides in the fifth inning when Harguess, Riley Roskopf and Michael Paulus loaded the bases against Northwest Christian pitcher Ryan Lopez. Kaleb Burns then crushed a double on an 0-2 pitch, bringing home Harguess and Roskopf to even the game at three runs.
Despite Paulus being tagged out during Burns’ 2RBI double, J.R. Willingham broke the brief deadlock to score Burns and give the Cougars a 4-3 lead at the end of five
“I just thought we had better at-bats,” Middleton said on his team’s comeback. “We tend to lack focus when we get down early and we don’t have that fight to get back into it. But I know we do and a couple of good plays here, couple good plays there, double-play balls, all of sudden it just propelled us a little bit and we wanted to fight.”
In the seventh inning, the Crusaders snuck in a run to knot the game once again after Harguess surrendered a sacrifice fly to center field. This prompted Middleton to bring in closer Thomas Bartles, who quickly fanned the next batter to end the top half of the inning.
The contest dragged on into extra innings where both teams struggled to find an edge over the other. Both sides tallied a run in the eight, but it was in the decisive 10th inning where the Crusaders put the game out of reach.
It was apparent that fatigue began to waiver the Cougars’ focus as they committed a myriad of defensive lapses, including wild pitches, pass balls, and dropped catches. This ultimately helped the Crusaders plate four runs to eventually earn them the win and avoid the upset.
While this loss does indeed sting for the Cougars, Middleton reassured that they are still in good position for the upcoming postseason.
“We are losing to the higher-ranked teams, which I believe is not killing us,” Middleton said. “I think Monday is our true test against Wickenburg and if we go out and we beat Wickenburg, I think we’re fine, I think we’re OK. Looking at the power rankings and our power points and the teams behind us, I don’t see us dropping that much unless we don’t take care of Wickenburg.”
Just as Middleton alluded to, Chino Valley (8-8, 2-7 West) will face No. 26 Wickenburg (8-9, 54- West) on the road on Monday. The Wranglers are fourth in the West region standings, one spot above the Cougars.
Aaron Valdez is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier of Prescott News Network. Follow him on Twitter at @Valaaron_94. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2031.