RENO — Liberty baseball coach Nick Didier couldn’t quite choke back the tears as his team celebrated on the field at UNR’s Peccole Park on Saturday.
“It’s emotional because I remember when we won four games in a year,” Didier said. “And I remember just thinking about one day maybe we can reach the top of the mountain. And I didn’t know when it was going to be. And it just so happened to be today.
“I’m proud to be a Patriot today.”
Liberty got a strong outing from No. 3 starter Trevor Mullaney, and Preston Pavilca provided the offensive punch with a pair of RBI triples as the Patriots held off Centennial for a 5-3 win in the Division I state championship game.
It was the first state title for Liberty, which was making its first state tournament appearance. The Patriots had only made the postseason twice in school history before this season.
“When I came here my freshman year, I knew Liberty was down and they’ve always been down,” senior right fielder Jesse Keiser said. “I think my class came in and we pretty much took over (along with) the class that graduated last year. Our two classes took over and we just went up from there.”
Mullany, a junior right-hander, spent most of the season in the bullpen, but gave the Patriots (31-5) a quality start on Saturday.
“It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Mullaney said. “My coaches trusted me and I went out there and just gave it everything I had.”
Mullaney allowed two runs on six hits with two strikeouts and one walk.
“I was waiting for Trevor to have a big day like that today,” senior left fielder Dan Skelly said. “He’s just a dog.”
The game was tied 1-1 when junior center fielder Pavlica came up with his first big hit in the third inning. Keiser walked with one out, and came home on Pavlica’s two-out triple to right center, giving Liberty a 2-1 lead.
“It just gave me a little cushion,” Mullaney said. “Just a big relief. After that, I was like ‘Oh, we’re in this.’”
Pavlica was in the middle of things again during Liberty’s three-run fifth inning. Jay Martz had a sacrifice fly to make it 3-1, and Pavlica followed that with a shot high off the wall in dead center for his second RBI triple of the game. Skelly then grounded the ball to short, but Pavlica beat the throw to the plate for a 5-1 lead.
“Preston Pavlica coming through in the clutch with two big triples … the kid’s the hardest worker and I think the best center fielder in the state of Nevada,” Didier said. “He’s just a pure gamer. God, what a great win for the team and a great win to send the seniors off.”
Centennial threatened in the sixth when Kyle Horton singled and Mullaney hit Jake Portaro with one out. Cooper Powell then stung a line drive that looked destined for the gap, but second baseman Ethan Ibarra snagged it for the second out.
Mullaney then blew a high fastball past Travis Stevens for a strikeout to get out of the inning.
The Bulldogs (27-13) made things interesting in the seventh. Will Loucks doubled to lead off the inning before Didier pulled Mullaney in favor of Justin Lutes.
Lutes retired the first two batters he faced, but pinch runner Alex Nicoll came home on a wild pitch, and Ricky Koplow blooped a single to left.
Koplow took second on defensive indifference, and Tanner Wright then tripled past a diving Keiser in right field to make it 5-3 and bring the tying run to the plate.
But Lutes got Horton to fly out to Keiser in right to end the game.
“I knew it was going to be hard, either way,” Keiser said. “Centennial’s a great team over there. This game’s never going to be easy, it’s always going to be hard, and I knew it was going to come down to the last play of the game.”
Centennial coach Charlie Cerrone said Ibarra’s snag in the sixth might have changed the game.
“I’ve got to give credit to my guys,” Cerrone said. “Just like all season: no quit, all fight.”
Koplow and Wright each went 2-for-4 for Centennial, which fought off Reno 11-10 late Friday to earn a spot in the title game.
“We have talent, but we’re probably not the most talented,” Cerrone said. “And we battle with what we have. I love our guys.”
Pavlica went 2-for-3, Martz drove in two runs and Keiser scored twice for Liberty.
“There’s nothing better,” Skelly said of the title. “I just couldn’t imagine being here today without this group of guys behind me.”