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Battle-tested Lions ready for regional

Sierra Vista’s American Legion baseball team didn’t take the easiest route to the Western Regional tournament.

But battling back to win five in a row after losing the state-tournament opener might have been the best way to build confidence.

“Everybody’s got a little swagger to their step,” Sierra Vista coach Levi Gill said. “They’re playing pretty well. The cards will fall where they fall. Hopefully, we’ll have a good hand.”

The double-elimination tournament begins with two sessions today at UNLV’s Wilson Stadium.

Taylorsville (Utah) plays Albuquerque La Cueva (N.M.) at 9 a.m., and Boulder (Colo.) plays Tucson Northwest (Ariz.) at noon.

Sierra Vista (41-14) plays Waipahu (Hawaii) to open the second session at 5 p.m., with Bishop Gorman (55-12) playing Long Beach-Wilson (Calif.) at 8 p.m.

The tournament runs through Monday, with the winner advancing to the American Legion World Series in Spokane, Wash.

Coming through the losers’ bracket in the state tournament tested the Lions’ pitching. They played six games in eight days, and the pitching staff threw 55 innings.

But things could be tougher in the regional, where the team could play five consecutive days.

“Five days straight in nine-inning games with an 18-man roster is a brutal deal,” Gill said. “You’re going to need to have some guys come in and throw strikes. You don’t need anybody to go out there and throw a perfect game, you’ve just got to go out there and do what you can do and put the ball over the plate and let the defense play behind them.”

Gill is fortunate to have several pitchers willing to pitch every day if necessary. Blair Goldsack and Jake Hager each made four appearances in the state tournament, with Goldsack striking out 23 in 13 innings. He earned two saves and got the win in the title game.

“Blair’s a competitor,” Gill said. “He comes to you nearly every game and says, ‘I want the ball.’ And (Alex) Estrella and Hager do the same thing. It’s a battle to see who gets to pitch, because everybody thinks they can do it. And that’s a good problem to have.”

Offense wasn’t a problem in the state tournament. Sierra Vista batted .332 and scored 59 runs in six games.

Matt Holman hit .462 with five doubles, a triple and nine RBIs and Julian Cutolo hit .542 with three doubles and 13 RBIs to lead the way.

“They’ve had good summers,” Gill said of Holman and Cutolo. “But it was nice. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for them to be up there hitting the ball and putting it in play.”

Gorman, which plays as the Southern Nevada Titans, is making its fifth straight appearance in the regional. But the Titans are in the tournament only because Nevada is the host state and gets an automatic second berth.

Sierra Vista beat Gorman twice in the state tournament, ending the Titans’ streak of four Legion state titles.

But Gill doesn’t think his team has seen the last of Gorman, which has also won the last five Class 4A high school state titles.

“Until they’ve got two losses in any tournament, Gorman’s got to be the favorite of any tournament they’re in,” Gill said. “Their record speaks for itself over the last five years. If you’re a betting person, you’ve still got to go with them.”

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