The Millennium Tigers varsity baseball team has May 14 circled on its calendar, the day of the AIA 5A State Championship game. The athletes want nothing more than to play that 4 p.m. first pitch at Tempe Diablo Stadium.
In his second season at the helm of the Tigers program, head coach Jerod Burleson yearns for a date in the title game.
“Our goal is the play in the last game of the year,” he said.
A year removed from starting the season 7-9, the Tigers opened this spring with 13 wins in the team’s first 16 games. The urge to begin the season on a good note – instead of stumbling out of the gate and getting buried in the conference come playoff time – was of utmost importance to Burleson.
“We talked about that going into this year – let’s build off of last year, let’s learn, let’s feed off that momentum, let’s learn from where we were at last year,” he said. “We preached from the beginning, our goal is to play in the last game of the year.
“In order to do that, we need to get ourselves in a good position going into the playoffs. We won a bunch of big games early on this year. I give all the credit to the great senior group.”
Millennium High School capped the regular season scoring 27 unanswered runs, en route to a 21-5 record and a 5A Desert West Region Title. They also earned No. 6 seed in this spring’s tournament. They’ll host No. 11 Williams Field on April 27. Results of the first two rounds of the tournament were not available as of print.
The Tigers are led by a hearty group of upperclassmen. Of the 21 players on the roster, according to Maxpreps.com, 17 of them are juniors and seniors. “The majority” of the starting nine now are seniors, Burleson said.
Millennium does everything well. They hit for average, flash some pop up throughout the order, limit opposing hitters and take care of the ball on defense. As a team, they’re batting .348, averaging just north of eight runs scored per night.
On the mound, they own a team ERA of 2.36. A season ago, that was at a 3.95 clip.
It's impossible to chalk up the Tigers' pitchers' success to one thing.
“There’s a lot of moving parts, to be honest,” Burleson said. “Our pitch caller does a wonderful job. He’s a former Division I catcher from Texas Tech and I have to give credit to him. And, man, the guys who go out on the mound – they’re competitors, man.”
Sitting to Burleson’s right – just as soon as that last sentence slipped out of his mouth – was senior infielder and right-handed pitcher David Enriquez.
Burleson nodded toward Enriquez.
“David is a big part of that,” he said. “He’s impressive.”
But the word “impressive” might not do Enriquez justice.
The Tigers’ 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has produced video game-like numbers in his senior spring. He boasts a .438 average and leads the team in RBI (31), doubles (13), hits (35) and extra-base hits (16). He’s a career .398 in four seasons with the Millennium varsity program.
Enriquez has also thrown a team-leading 40 innings to the tune of a 0.52 ERA, 52 strikeouts and six walks. He’s surrendered just three earned runs in that frame.
This, he said, is the best he’s ever felt playing this game.
“I have all the confidence right now,” he said. “I step up to the plate and I think I’m the best hitter.
“(And on the mound), whoever steps into the box, I feel like I’m going to strike them out or get them out. My fastball and curveball are really good right now.”
Couple Enriquez’s wizardry with the likes of senior Robert Schmidt and junior Trevor Baugh – both hitting over .400 – and the Tigers are a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
The Tigers were in the 6A conference last spring, but have since dropped to 5A. Does dropping down a conference lighten the Tigers schedule, or pave an easier road to a state title? Not quite. Instead, the Tigers skipper has found the 5A conference is replete with more solid, well-rounded schools.
“The biggest change I’ve seen, there are more good games,” he said. “No disrespect to 6A, but last year we played a really big dog and they kicked our butt and then we played a really bad school.
“There’s more elite players in 6A, but I think there are more solid teams in 5A. We’ve played in more good games this year than last year.”
Burleson and the Tigers believe they’re in the conversation for being one of the top teams the 5A conference has to offer. What’s most advantageous, he said, is the core the Tigers returned for this spring. They made the playoffs last year, but only graduated two starting seniors.
“I’ve seen really, really good talented teams lose to teams that were half as good as them based on experience, based on being in those games,” he said.
The Tigers were in one of “those games” last spring. As a No. 16 seed, they gave No. 1 seed Mountain View High School fits in the opening round of the tournament. They had them on the ropes, clutching on to a two-run lead with nine outs to play.
The Toros rallied, however, tacking on three runs in the home half of the fifth inning. They escaped with a 5-4 win, jettisoning Millennium out of the tournament.
“Moments like that, that these guys got to experience last year, are going to give us a chance,” Burleson said.
Burleson occasionally thinks back to that decisive night, and the first-round exit that ensued. It doesn’t get under his skin, though, and is nothing worth seething over. It’s a learning moment, he avowed. A learning moment that everyone associated in the program can take to heart.
“It doesn’t tick me off. It motivates me and I try and let that motivate our kids,” he said.
With this year’s group, he’s subscribing to the notion that his team truly has the overall makeup to play until the final day of the season.
“We’re talented, hard-working and we have great leadership,” he said.
Enriquez echoed those sentiments.
“I already know with our confidence right now, we can beat anybody,” he said. “I know we can.”