With a stronger seeding and the region title at their grasp, the Spartans are entering what first-year manager Matt Schmidt is calling "finals week."
And there a couple tough tests waiting for 2A Conference Northland Prep, which has just three regular-season ballgames remaining.
The No. 10 Spartans have a chance to move into the top eight of the rankings, avoiding a play-in game in the process, and claim the Central Region title for a second consecutive season. Standing in the way of those aspirations are region opponents Camp Verde, ranked No. 7 as of press time, and sixth-ranked Scottsdale Prep, the only team to put a stain on Northland Prep's 8-1 region record.
“I feel confident in where we are at and I know the boys can do it, it’s just a matter of executing on game day," said Schmidt, whose Spartans hold a 10-3 overall record and have won five of their last six trips to the diamond.
Even though his team essentially controls its own destiny, Schmidt wants his players to focus on winning one game at a time. They aren't looking ahead to avoiding the play-in game, they just want to "play for today, win it for today," the skipper said.
Northland Prep edged rival Camp Verde, 6-5, in the team's first of two meetings thanks to Jacob Marquez drawing a walk with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth for the extra-inning victory at home.
The tables turned on Northland Prep when it was away for the first game against Scottsdale Prep, which sits atop of the region with an 8-1 record. Northland Prep committed three errors in the 5-4 loss back in late March, one of which allowed Scottsdale Prep to walk off after trailing 4-2.
“One of those games that will haunt you your entire life,” Schmidt said of the loss full of uncharacteristic mistakes.
The Spartans have a chance to make some better memories starting Tuesday against a hosting Camp Verde ballclub that owns a 7-1 region mark.
Northland Prep's pitching has done a solid job in helping the team win tight games. The Spartans are 2-2 in games decided by two or fewer runs, courtesy of a deep mix of arms.
“You never know what hand you are going to get dealt, but I am blessed with the pitching I’ve got, so it’s never really a matter of trying to avoid a game," Schmidt said of the season coming down the stretch. "We want to win as many as we can, put ourselves in the best seeding that we can, but I don’t have to be as tactful as some teams because I am so deep as far as pitching goes.”
The pitching staff has limited the amount of runs scored against Northland Prep to 44. Meanwhile, the offense has scored 147 runs for an average of about 11 per game.
It's in the tight games when Schmidt would like to see the team really rake.
“For us to go deep into the playoffs or just win these big games, our bats have to come alive. That’s all it comes down to," Schmidt said. "... We have to do the talking with the bats."
Scottsdale Prep is new to the Central Region this season; however, Camp Verde and Northland Prep have plenty of history, most of which is filled with close calls.
So hitting has been the focus at practice.
Connor Barta's bat needs to be loud down the stretch like it has been all most of the season. The stud sophomore is batting .591, the seventh-best average in the 2A Conference, and his on-base percentage of .684 is the seventh-best statewide.
But Barta isn't unstoppable.
He went 1 for 4 against a tough 1A Williams team, as its ace handed Northland Prep its only shutout loss of the season on Monday at Sinagua Middle School. Since then, however, the Spartans have bounced back with a 19-3 win over North Pointe Prep and a 11-4 trouncing of Sedona Red Rock.
Barta leads the team in RBIs (24) and hits (26), and holds an ERA of 1.79. Senior teammate Jack Berger has the second-most RBIs (20) and hits (18), and has been a key starter on the mound. Marquez also has 18 hits.
Upperclassmen and younger players alike have contributed big-time for the Spartans, making age a nonfactor for the ballclub so far. Sophomore Chase Hamilton is hitting .425 and has scored 21 runs, a count that Marquez, a senior, and Dawson Messick, a junior, have compiled as well. And senior Zach Tweed has been solid on both sides of the plate with 14 RBIs recorded and a sub-2 ERA.
“You would never know what class they are, freshman, sophomore, junior, senior," Schmidt said. "The boys have gelled really well and they are very respectful to each other. They play very well together and I just don’t see any separation. They play like they are in the same class, the same age.”
The Spartans hope that winning mentality holds up for the vets and the young players in this week's high-pressure games.
After playing Camp Verde Tuesday, Northland Prep is home Thursday for Scottsdale Prep, with first pitch set for 3:45 p.m. at Sinagua Middle School.