The baseball team at Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) is going for four of a kind this week, with the help of a wild card of sorts.
The Gaels have won the last three Nevada state titles in Class 4A, the largest division, and are back in the four-team state tournament. They'll face Green Valley (Henderson) in Thursday's opener. The three-day, double-elimination field also features Douglas (Minden) and Cimarron-Memorial (Las Vegas).
Bishop Gorman was flying along on a 35-game winning streak after stumbling out of the gate with losses in three of their first four games. Then they met the Cimarron Spartans in the championship game of the Sunset Region last Friday and were stunned, 10-2. The result was even more shocking since Gorman had run-ruled Cimarron during the regular season.
The state tournament site alternates between the Vegas and Reno areas. In the years in which the tournament is held in Reno, the three region winners are joined in the semifinals by the runner-up in the Northern Region. When it's held in or near Vegas, the fourth semifinalist is determined by a play-in game between the losers of the Sunrise and Sunset finals.
This year's tournament will be played at the College of Southern Nevada in North Las Vegas, and that provided Bishop Gorman a second chance at defending its state title. The Gaels dusted themselves off after Friday's loss, went out the next day and defeated Las Vegas High 10-6 to claim the wild-card berth in the state tournament.
"It hurt a lot to lose on Friday," said senior left-handed pitcher Joey Rickard, the starter in the loss to Cimarron. "But we have a good team and knew we had to fight back. We stepped it up."
"I think we're ready to roll," said Chris Sheff, in his sixth year as Bishop Gorman coach. "Obviously, losing woke everybody up."
Said sophomore catcher Erik Van Meetren: "It was more nerve-racking than it should have been."
Junior second baseman Johnny Field said the players gathered calmly down the left-field line while stretching before the play-in game. There were no dramatic speeches, he said, simply a handful of players who emphasized what was at stake.
"We didn't get down on ourselves," said Field, who has hit .528 with 14 home runs. "We knew going into the regional final that if we lost, we still had a chance to make it to state."
Senior Jeff Malm homered in the first inning against Las Vegas High, and the Gaels were on their way. That was Malm's team-leading 17th home run of the season, one of 71 hit by Bishop Gorman. Malm, a left-handed pitcher and first baseman, also leads the team with a .584 batting average and a 10-1 record on the mound.
That wasn't the first time during this four-year run that Bishop Gorman has stood on the brink of postseason elimination. Last season, the Gaels dropped their first-round playoff opener to Palo Verde (Las Vegas) and had to battle back through the losers' bracket.
Malm has always hit for a high average but hit only 15 total homers in his high school career prior to this season. He's one of six NCAA Division I signees on the team. The others: right-handed pitcher/first baseman Stephen Manthei (Arizona), left-handed pitcher/center fielder Joey Rickard (Arizona), third baseman R.J. Santigate (Long Beach State) and shortstop Tyler Wagner (Utah).
Reloading is nothing new to the program, which lost four top players off last season's 41-3 team. This year's squad got off to a nice start last summer by winning the American Legion World Series.
Sheff said he's surprised this team has hit as well if not better than the '08 champs. He said this pitching staff doesn't go five deep among starters but is well-equipped with Malm, Manthei and Rickard.
"There aren't as many stars on this team," said senior Stephen Manthei, who usually alternates with Malm between first base and the mound and also fills in a little at DH. "This team has a different style, bears down a little more. We're better defensively."
Malm said he's more proud of this group than any of the three state winners. "Because we'd never gotten off to a bad start before," he said. "We regrouped."
Malm and Manthei (9-1, 1.70 ERA and 72 strikeouts in 53.2 innings) are the Gaels' one-two punch on the mound. One of them figures to start on Thursday against Green Valley (25-10) in a rematch of last year's 4A championship finale.
Van Meetren, who has the best seat to the Gaels' two-headed pitching monster, described their styles this way: "Jeff hits his spots and throws hard. Stephen keeps the ball down, gets a lot of ground balls."
Van Meetren is in his first year as a full-time player and has 12 homers to go with a .487 batting average. He's one of the players who came to Bishop Gorman as a freshman after previously attending area public schools. The others come from one of the feeder schools that funnel into Bishop Gorman, the one major Catholic high school in the Las Vegas area.
The Gaels are once again on the doorstep of another title, and championship tradition calls for the Gaels to make Outback Steakhouse the team training table the night before the tournament opener.
Said Malm: "My freshman year, the athletic department paid for it. Guys were ordering steak and lobster."
Rest easy, boys: "Can't mess with tradition," Sheff said.
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.