KNOCKING IT OUT OF THE PARK: Fast start has MHS baseball thinking big

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Junior catcher Dante Westmiller and teammates have the Maricopa High baseball team thinking playoffs for the first time in years. [Bryan Mordt]

It’s been a tough year for sports at Maricopa High.

The football team went 0-10, the boys basketball team 7-19 and the girls basketball team 3-22.

The Rams were more than ready for something to feel good about, so when the baseball team opened 3-0 and improved to 6-2 with an 11-3 rout of Mesa Dobson on March 10, eyebrows were raised and those close to the program were beginning to utter the “P” word.

Bear in mind that Maricopa High baseball last made the playoffs six seasons ago.

Coach Brad Vericker calls junior co-captain Cody Gallardo (above) “one of most-talented players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach.” [Photos by Bryan Mordt]
“This is about pride to us,” said Dante Westmiller, a junior catcher and co-captain. “Basketball didn’t have a great year. Football obviously was winless. I think if we make the playoffs it would be a major success.”

The Rams’ competition for the school’s team of the year might come from their other major spring sport, softball, where the Lady Rams take a 9-3-1 record into Monday’s home game against San Luis (1-3).

“The softball team, those girls are always competing with us, talking trash to us,” Westmiller said with a chuckle.

MHS baseball coach Brad Vericker, in his fourth season, does not frown on playoff talk. In fact, he believes it is healthy, as long as the players don’t lose sight of the shorter-term goals of improving pitch by pitch, game by game.

“You know, obviously it’s one of our goals,” Vericker said of making the playoffs. “We’re trying not get too far ahead of ourselves. Establishing that culture of success is what we’ve always wanted to do here but it takes having the players to take that on. These kids really want to give the school something to be proud of, and that’s part of it, too. You can tell in everything they do in practice and in team meetings there’s just a different level of character and pride.

Maricopa High’s (from left) Parker Lay, Sayd Navarro and Cayden Cook during the national anthem.

“As a coaching staff, we feel pretty lucky. We’ve got a good bunch of kids, not just playing-wise but character-wise. It’s just a lot of fun to be around this program right now.”

The lineup is dotted with underclassmen. The Rams’ other co-captain, Cody Gallardo, also is a junior. When he’s not pitching, he’s at shortstop.

“Cody is one of most-talented players I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach,” Vericker said. “He’s been on the varsity since his freshman year.”

Gallardo has a mid-to-upper 80 mph fastball and throws a cutter Vericker describes as “lights out.” Gallardo leads the team in hits (8) and slugging percentage (.571), and is tied for the lead in RBI (6). He is among the team leaders with his .381 batting average.

Westmiller calls most of the pitches, a rarity at the high school level, especially considering he is a converted middle infielder-outfielder playing his first season behind the plate.

Gallardo and Westmiller have played together for years, since club ball.

“Both of those guys are ultra committed and our top competitors on the team,” Vericker said. “Both have bright futures, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them playing on TV some day at the college level or beyond.”

Ethan Palmer, a senior, leads the team in batting (.383), stolen bases (4) and earned-run average (2.21).

The Rams take the field.

“He knows exactly what he wants to do with a pitch,” Vericker said. “We’ve had him on the gun at 88-90 mph, a rarity in high school baseball. He knows when to back off on that fastball and change speeds a little, so he has something left in the tank to get back up to 88-90 in that sixth and seventh inning.  He’s also our cleanup hitter.”

Soon, the Rams will have even more firepower when Ethan Chavez, a transfer from Seton Catholic in Chandler, becomes eligible. He had to sit out the early portion of the season under Arizona Interscholastic Association transfer rules.

“He’s one of the top players in the state,” Vericker said.

Vericker and his staff were determined to give the players “a reason, a motivation to want to play baseball here.” That includes imparting knowledge, expertise and monitoring progress.

“The players who are here right now have an immense amount of pride in the community,” Vericker said. “Really, that’s what the core of it is, especially the juniors and seniors. They really, really care about this community and really care about this program, and they want this to be a place that is looked at as a baseball school, a place where baseball is done the right way and played well.

MHS baseball coach Brad Vericker is building a winning culture in the program.

“For us, that comes along very rarely.”

The turnaround, according to Westmiller, is simply mindset.

“Last year, we didn’t have as much buy-in as we have this year,” Westmiller said. “We were 0-6 to start off. This year, we’ve had a really good start.

“We have a good class of seniors, but we’ve got a lot of juniors, too, and even some sophomores in our lineup, and we’ve got some good freshmen coming up, too. I’m excited to see that, and that’s why I think we might be even better next year.”