Originally published Friday, April 20, 2018 at 11:42p.m.

PHOENIX — Chino Valley’s baseball players felt quite confident heading into their key league showdown at 3A No. 3-ranked Northwest Christian Friday.

Now we know why.

The No. 9 Cougars pulled off a big upset, rallying from a three-run deficit to win 9-3 and, in the process, put themselves in position to win a second consecutive 3A West region crown. More importantly, Chino Valley should raise its ranking into the Top 8, which is needed to earn an automatic berth to state. The Nos. 9 through 24th-ranked teams must win a play-in game to reach the 16-team state tournament later this month.

With a sixth consecutive victory, Chino Valley improved its overall record in power-point games to 13-3 and 8-1 in region. The Crusaders, whose 15-game winning streak in power-point games was snapped, dropped to 15-2 and 8-1. Chino Valley can win the region only if the Cougars win their final game at Wickenburg and Northwest Christian loses its finale at Odyssey Institute.

“At this point, it just shows that we can make a run in state,” Cougars coach Mark Middleton said of beating NW Christian. “I really do think so. This is going to build confidence.”

Abdiel Sanchez started on the mound for the Cougars and sparkled, allowing three runs (one earned) on seven hits, striking out nine and walking three, in 6-1/3 innings for the victory. Gavin Cluff came on in relief with one out in the seventh and shut down the Crusaders in fine form with two runners on base, allowing one hit and striking out one.

“The way we pitched to their hitters, I’ve never seen Northwest Christian defensive before,” Middleton said. “That started from the get-go. Abdiel was a little wild. We had a pitch-count issue. I had to pull him at 105 pitches. But he looked dominant. He’s special, and he can help us make a good run.”

Chino Valley overcame four errors behind an otherwise solid performance in all other facets. The Cougars hitters proved they could hit off of Crusaders starting pitcher Jarin Davis, someone who had given them fits in the past. Davis allowed four runs on four hits, walking five and fanning five in six innings.

Sanchez, who missed the Cougars’ last game on Wednesday, led Chino Valley at the dish, too. He went 2 for 4 with four RBIs. Michael Paulus (2 for 4, RBI, run scored), Thomas Bartels (1 for 4, three RBIs, run scored) also stood out for the visitors.

Trailing 3-0 in the fifth, the Cougars grabbed a 4-3 lead on the strength of Sanchez’s three-run double with two outs after Paulus had earlier hit an RBI single to end the shutout. Chino Valley tacked on five more runs in the seventh.

“Abdiel was huge for us [Friday],” Middleton said. “If the score had remained 3-1 and we lost that game, the guys mentally would be sitting back going, ‘Well, we can’t beat good pitching.’”

In 2017, Chino Valley claimed the region title by edging out eventual runner-up Northwest Christian. However, the Crusaders would gain a measure of revenge by beating the Cougars in the first round of the state tournament.

This season, Northwest Christian defeated the Cougars, 5-3, in their first of two region clashes April 3 in Chino Valley. The Crusaders had not lost a power-point game since March 1, a 12-5 setback at current 3A No. 2 Casteel. Since then, Northwest Christian had rattled off 15 consecutive wins, from March 2 through April 16.

Meanwhile, Chino Valley had been on a tear of its own, tallying five straight victories from April 7-17 after that April 3 loss to the Crusaders.

UP NEXT

Chino Valley puts a wrap on the regular season when it visits region foe Wickenburg (5-11 overall in power-point games, 2-7 region) at 3:45 p.m. Monday, April 23. Senior ace Tyler Hixon will start at pitcher for the Cougars.

“We’re going to try and win this 3A West championship,” Middleton said.

Northwest Christian concludes the regular season with one more region contest at 6 p.m. April 23 at Odyssey Institute (10-6, 4-5) in Phoenix. Odyssey lost its first meeting with the Crusaders, 5-4, April 11 on a walk-off in the seventh inning.

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.