One of the most storied programs in Arizona high-school baseball, Mesa Desert Ridge, has continued its winning ways with a 20-5 record this season and only a few games remaining before the playoffs.
Desert Ridge coach Pat Herrera has been happy with his team’s success and especially the performance of senior shortstop Riley Unroe.
With professional scouts watching him at games and even batting practice, Unroe has continued playing at an elite level, and Herrera noted how well his star has handled the attention.
“He’s never changed. He’s the same kid that I had as a freshman,” Herrera said. “He has high expectations of himself, he puts in the work, so hopefully it keeps paying off for him. He’s definitely carried us.”
The other area where Unroe has shined is leadership. According to Herrera, Unroe has taken some of the younger players, including freshman outfielder Ian Raidy, under his wing and helped bring them along.
“(Raidy) told me the other day that he’s learned more from Riley this season than he’s learned his whole life playing baseball,” Herrera added.
The team hasn’t been without its challenges and was tested early when junior Dylan Cook, expected to be an ace in the rotation, injured his arm and was forced into the outfield for the season. With Desert Ridge graduating most of its top pitchers from 2012, losing Cook could’ve been crushing, but Herrera said some of the guys have really stepped up, particularly senior Skylar Cohn.
Cohn has developed into the rotation’s stopper and puts in a good outing against any team, exceeding Herrera’s expectations and becoming the stabilizer in the rotation.
“He’s lived up to everything and more. He’s been really special,” Herrera said.
Herrera also praised the pitching of senior Bryan Natter, a guy who wasn’t really on his radar in February, and junior lefty Caleb Rodriguez. Both have performed well after Cook’s injury. Herrera noted that Rodriguez has handled everything thrown his way and has repeatedly come up with big at-bats and pitching performances when needed.
But the pitching has really been successful because of the team’s defense. The defensive side of the game has been at the heart of Herrera’s program at Desert Ridge since he arrived, and this year is no different.
The infield really stands out to Herrera. Surrounding Unroe at shortstop are a pair of juniors, third baseman Jayden Eggiman and second baseman Cam Richins. Eggiman is new to the program and, though they tried him in the outfield, Herrera said, he’s fit in at the hot corner and played well there.
Richins is a three-year starter at Desert Ridge and Herrera described him as “lights out.”
As the regular season wraps up, Desert Ridge is preparing for the state tournament where the end goal of a championship starts coming into view. To prepare his players, Herrera said he doesn’t try to do anything differently but instills a certain mentality to prepare them.
“We try to treat every game exactly the same,” Herrera explained. “We’ve played in a couple of state championships, lucky enough to do that, so we try to treat our summer game that we play in June … exactly the same as we play the state championship. It takes care of all of the emotions.”
Desert Ridge does have some younger players, too, and Herrera is confident that they’ll be ready, as their schedule has forced everyone to mature very quickly.
“I think the younger guys find out really quick that our schedule is so tough that if you try to choose when you play hard and when you don’t, you start losing games,” Herrera said. “There’s so many good teams out here you got to be ready to play every day.”