Preview: Cougars eye unprecedented 3rd straight 3A West title
CHINO VALLEY — If you visit one of the Chino Valley baseball team’s practices during the 2019 season, pay particular attention to fourth-year coach Mark Middleton’s energy and enthusiasm.
Yes, the Cougars are the two-time defending 3A West region champions because of their talent, skill, experience and tradition. But make no mistake – Middleton’s infectious demeanor and love of baseball rubs off on his players and makes them that much better.
And if you want to get to the heart of Chino Valley’s success, look no further than Middleton’s confidence in and genuine love for his boys in the dugout. Last season, the Cougars compiled a 14-3 record in power-point games and a 9-1 mark in region play. As an automatic state tournament qualifier, Chino Valley smoked Show Low, 12-0, in the first round before running into Casteel, a buzz saw, in a 4-3 quarterfinals loss.
The Cougars open the 2019 campaign at home when they play host to Winslow at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at Nesbitt-Pratt Field. Chino Valley’s expected to contend for a third consecutive region crown – which would be a program first – although stalwart Northwest Christian and Kingman should challenge the Cougars.
“It’s going to be hard [to three-peat],” Chino Valley senior Mike Paulus said. “The other teams are known for baseball, but we expect to keep up the momentum. We’ve got to keep the Chino tradition going.”
Chino Valley possesses a healthy on-field blend this spring with four seniors, six juniors, four sophomores and a freshman on its 15-player roster. “We’re more of a cohesive unit [this season],” Middleton said. “We’re not excelling in one thing. But we’re balanced, and defensively we’re pretty strong.”
At pitcher, right-handers Thomas Bartels and Elijah Scordato should be at the top of the rotation, with righty Jaydon Harguess, left-handed freshman Riley Roskopf and the ambidextrous Paulus (late relief) chipping in situationally.
Bartels has “great velocity,” Middleton said, and his forkball and split-finger fastball are at the top of his repertoire.
In the infield, J.R. Willingham and sophomore Kaleb Burns should platoon at catcher. Roskopf and senior Cody Burns get the call to platoon at first base, while Harguess patrols second base.
At shortstop is Scordato, a standout football player who should make an immediate impact for the Cougars. Bartels and Kaleb Burns share third-baseman duties.
Scordato started playing baseball at age 10. He had relocated to Utah before returning to Chino Valley within the past year. Paulus, who also plays football, encouraged Scordato to try out for baseball this spring. They have been friends for years.
“It’s huge to me [to be on this team] – to be a leader, too, and to try to help,” Scordato said. In the outfield, look for Paulus in center field, Cody Burns in right when he’s not at first and newcomer Joseph Senn in left. Sophomore Kamren Loftin, a left-handed hitter, is a capable backup.
At the dish, Middleton likes Harguess to lead off, Paulus in the 2-hole, Bartels in the three-spot, Cody Burns at cleanup, Scordato hitting fifth and Roskopf batting sixth. Willingham, Kaleb Burns and Senn are the Nos. 7 through 9 hitters, respectively.