Richardson leads Arizona to Sunbelt title

 

by Casey Pritchard

assistant sports editor

Scott Richardson made his curtain call at the Junior Sunbelt Classic in Oklahoma a memorable one.

The Tolleson head coach led Team Arizona to its second Sunbelt title, as it went 9-1 June 7-12 in McAlester, Okla. It was a memorable sendoff for Richardson, who was also inducted into the Sunbelt Hall of Fame. This was his 10th and final year coaching in the tournament.

“This is supposed to be my last year going, and I think it is,” Richardson said. “My wife always tells me ‘Oh, you’re going to go again,’ but I think this is probably going to be my last year. We talk to our Tolleson kids about commitment, and I’m running around for Sunbelt, doing Team USA. I think I’m going to let some other guys do it. I’m going to help out however I can, but I think this is going to be my last year.”

Arizona lost its first game of the tournament, 3-2 to Texas, but stormed back through pool play to win eight straight and make the championship game. It played Colorado, winning 5-2.

“Going into the last day, us, Tennessee and Texas were all tied,” Richardson said. “They lost both their games, we won both, and Colorado beat both of them and jumped them.”

It was the first time since 2008 that Arizona had won, but they were runners-up last year and have had good success in the last six years at the event.

“The last six years, if we didn’t play in the championship it was because we had a tiebreaker and were the odd man out,” Richardson said. “There were a couple years we were 7-2 and because of tie-breaking rules we didn’t play in the championship, but every year we’ve been right at the doorstep.”

No West Valley athletes played in this year’s event, but there were still a good group of players selected. Tucson Catalina Foothills’ Luis Gonzalez earned tournament MVP, doing a little bit of everything for Arizona.

“He got a win off the mound, I think he hit .560-something, a couple home runs, stole bases,” Richardson said. “He might be one of my favorite kids we ever took back just because of the way he went about his business. He played hard, kept his mouth shut, he was great.”

Phoenix Sunnyslope’s Calvin Lebrun was the most valuable pitcher of the tournament. He got a no decision in his first outing — despite allowing just two hits — and was the winning pitcher in the championship game.

Three other players earned all-tournament recognition: Vail Cienega’s Andre Jackson and Phoenix Greenway’s Tyler Frost and Payton Squier.

“I really think this was the best team we’ve taken back in 10 years,” Richardson said. “Maybe not the best individuals that we’ve taken back, but the best team. When we pick these guys we tell them it’s not an all-star team that we’re just putting down on paper, we have to go play games. Maybe we didn’t take the first baseman who hit the most home runs, or the pitcher who had the most wins. We tried to put it together like a roster.”

That included taking left-handed pitchers to match up against the oppositions’ left-handed hitters, an equal number of lefty and righty bats and corner outfielders and first basemen that can pitch in addition to playing the field. It made for an abundance of pitching, which is needed when playing 10 games in six days.

“This is my 10th year of being the head coach, and for the first couple years we wanted the best dudes,” Richardson said. “Everybody had huge egos, so it was difficult getting through the week. If everybody is playing good it’s not as difficult, but not everyone is going to play good. Guys had a difficult time not being in the lineup every day.

“It was a lot of trial and error, and I think the last couple years we’ve been real fortunate that we’re taking the right guys. We take guys that are more concerned about playing for Team Arizona than self promotion.”

Rough start

Despite winning the tournament, it was a rocky start for the team, beginning before they even left Arizona.

“We usually fly, but we [took a bus] a couple years ago and it was a nightmare, the bus broke down twice, it was a 22-hour trip,” Richardson said. “So we’re like, it can’t be worse than the first time.”

They were supposed to leave at 7 p.m. June 5 but there was a miscommunication with the bus company in scheduling. They finally left at 2 a.m., missing the banquet on June 6, but making it in time for their first game on June 7. That was the only game Arizona would lose, but Richardson said it wasn’t because of fatigue.

“We just played bad defense,” Richardson said. “The first three games we made 12 errors, the rest of tournament combined we only made three errors. We got there and guys had the yips, throwing balls away, easy plays. I think it was more nerves than anything because we had plenty of rest, so fatigue couldn’t have been a factor. We didn’t play that well the first few games, but got a couple wins and then we really started playing well after that.”

In addition to winning the title, Richardson was honored by being inducted into the Sunbelt Hall of Fame. He was voted in last year.

“I’m honored, but I think it’s more of a longevity thing,” Richardson said. “It’s been a great experience, the high caliber baseball I’ve been around, the future big leaguers I’ve been around and able to coach. It’s been really cool.”

Richardson got to share this year’s experience with his daughter, Raeann, while his son Brock was there in 2008 when Arizona won.

“Reflectively looking back, yeah, it’s cool to go out that way, but I don’t think that was at the forefront, I just wanted to go over and try to win this thing,” Richardson said. “I’ve met a lot of good people. Garye LaFevers has been instrumental in allowing me to take this over, Eric Godfrey and all he does with the Sunbelt. There are a lot of people involved with doing this whole thing and it was cool to be a part of for sure.”

Casey Pritchard can be reached by email at cpritchard@westvalleyview.com.