DENVER — For just the second time in school history, Heritage baseball is assured of playing for a state baseball championship.
The Eagles beat Arapahoe 7-4 on Tuesday evening to cement itself as the lone unbeaten after the first weekend of play in the Class 5A state baseball tournament. It means that no matter what happens in Heritage's next game, the Eagles will be playing for a state title on Sunday.
"It feels that we're really hitting our stride," Heritage coach Tyler Munro said of his team, which started just two seniors on Tuesday. "When you've got a young team, you want to see that growth. If it's a veteran team, you can come out the gates and just know what to do. It's been great watching them."
Heritage advances to play Mountain Vista, which fought off elimination with two wins on Tuesday, on Saturday at 9 a.m.
Mountain Range and Arapahoe will face off in the other game on Saturday, at noon, with the winner advancing to play Sunday at 10 a.m. As both teams have already lost in the double-elimination tournament, the loser will be eliminated.
Should Mountain Vista beat Heritage on Saturday, the Golden Eagles would advance to play the winner of Mountain Range and Arapahoe. If Heritage wins, the winner of Mountain Range and Arapahoe would need to defeat Heritage twice to win the championship.
In other words, Heritage is in the driver's seat. But Munro, who is in his first-year at Heritage following a successful run at Rock Canyon that included a title in 2015, isn't putting too much weight in that fact.
"You know, I've won it coming from that (loser's) bracket," Munro said. "There's a lot of baseball left, and four good teams are in the bracket."
On Tuesday, Heritage matched up with Arapahoe, its rival school. And Arapahoe came out swinging, building a 4-0 lead after the first inning that included a three-run home run from Ryan Nourse.
Heritage was unfazed.
"We've had multiple games earlier in the season where we've gone down big early ... and we came back to win," said Heritage's Eric McKnight, a junior. "So we've been in this situation before."
The Eagles plated five runs in the bottom of the second, including a two-run double from Conner Cummiskey, as well as an RBI single from McKnight that gave Heritage the lead for good at 5-4.
"The first few pitches were breaking balls, I wasn't really expecting them, and then he came back with a fastball up and out — the same pitch I struck out on the first inning," McKnight said. "I was ready for it this time."
Of the early hole, Munro added: "I'm not worried in that situation. We've had 6-0 runs and we were behind Pine Creek yesterday 2-0."
In that game, of course, Heritage exploded for a 12-run inning and went on to win.
Immediately after Heritage rallied, the game went into a 45-minute lightning delay. When they emerged, McKnight was given the ball on the mound. He took it from there, going five innings, and allowing just five hits and no runs.
The only other time Heritage has played for a baseball title was 2004, when the Eagles lost to ThunderRidge.
Despite the loss, Arapahoe had already earned its spot in the Final 4 via wins over previously unbeaten Mountain Vista as well as Cherokee Trail on Monday.
Mountain Range punched its ticket to the Final 4 with wins over Rock Canyon (4-0) and Cherokee Trail (6-4) earlier Tuesday.
The Mustangs got a complete game performance from Mike Polson in the win over Rock Canyon. He struck out six, and allowed just four hits. Angelo Domenico had two RBIs for Mountain Range.
Against Cherokee Trail, Jacob Simmons led the way with three RBIs, including a two-out, two-RBI double that game Mountain Range the lead for good in the top of the sixth inning.
Cherokee Trail had led the game 2-0 through three innings.
"Everyone picked each other up, and just kept going," Simmons said. "We knew this game wasn't over."
Said Mountain Range coach D.J. Yeager: "This group of guys, they just love competing. It doesn't matter what the score is. They're just going to compete the entire time."
Mountain Range tied for the championship in the always tough Front Range League and hosted a regional for the second consecutive season. Now, the Mustangs have taken the next step.
"Everyone doubted us," Simmons said, "and now we made it."
Mountain Vista also rebounded from a loss on the first day of the tournament to earn its spot in the Final 4.
The Golden Eagles started Tuesday with a 2-1 win over defending champion Rocky Mountain in which Jack Liffrig tossed a complete game. Liffrig allowed just three hits, one run, and struck out six batters.
John Zakhem drove in what proved to be the winning run in the top of the seventh. Elisandro Aragon also homered in the win, his second of the tournament.
Mountain Vista followed that win with a 5-4 victory over Pine Creek in which Ben Cole had a complete-game effort. Cole, a sophomore, hadn't thrown a varsity inning all seasons — he threw 15 innings for the school's junior varsity team this spring.
Clay Burke added a two-run double as part of a four-run inning in the third in the win.