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Without postseason expectations, Bonanza forces way into state baseball tourney

Wednesday was supposed to be a time for Bonanza’s baseball team to look back at its season. Instead, it turned into a pregame meal.

The Bengals’ unlikely run through the Sunset Region tournament may have messed up the plans for the team’s postseason banquet, but that’s OK with the team.

“We had the end-of-the-season banquet scheduled for 4 o’clock (Wednesday),” Bonanza coach Derek Stafford said. “(Instead) we’re going to be practicing and then we’re just going to be doing a little spaghetti dinner to get some carbs in us for the state tournament. It’s a hell of a reason to be changing dates. No complaints.”

Instead of putting away equipment, the Bengals (19-14) will be making their first state-tournament appearance since 2002. They play Northern Region champ Reno (26-8) at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Community College of Southern Nevada. Sunrise champ Coronado (32-3) plays Sunset runner-up Bishop Gorman (31-7-1) in the other game at 4:30 Thursday . The double-elimination tournament runs through Saturday.

“It doesn’t feel real at all,” senior pitcher Nick Risucci said. “I would never have thought we would be here.”

Finding someone who thought Bonanza would be in the state tournament might be a tougher task than beating Gorman, something the Bengals did three times this season.

Bonanza wasn’t even guaranteed a playoff spot as it entered the last week of the regular season, and the Bengals were just one game over .500 at the start of the postseason. Still, they managed to win four in a row for just the second time this season, including two of those wins over Gorman, to capture the Sunset crown.

“It’s just amazing,” senior pitcher Will McKenna said. “A lot of people doubted us. We didn’t have our best regular season, but once we started coming together during the playoffs, everything just clicked from there.”

Stafford saw something in this team from the start. When he became the Bonanza’s athletic director at the start of the school year, school administrators wanted him to give up coaching. But Stafford asked for a shot to do both jobs.

“I just saw a bunch of kids that were real hungry, real scrappy,” Stafford said. “I just felt something special.

“When you have 14 seniors, when you have that many kids that you’ve seen for four years, there’s just no way I was stepping way. I just couldn’t.”

Stafford said he’s never had 14 seniors on a team before, and usually doesn’t keep more than 18 players on the varsity team. This year, he kept 24.

“I told my wife, ‘They’re great kids, I can’t let them go,’” Stafford said. “I want to see them graduate and be part of something special, because I thought this could be a special year.”

So while Coronado carried a national ranking for much of the year, and Gorman continued to play strong baseball after winning the last seven state titles, it was Bonanza that forced its way into the state tournament as the uninvited guest.

“These guys are like my family, my brothers,” McKenna said. “I’ve been playing with them since I was 7, 8 years old. To get where we are as a team, this is the biggest accomplishment we’ve done as a core group.”

Stafford said: “I told the kids, ‘This is going to be the most fun time of your life playing baseball. You guys just created a moment you will not forget for the rest of your life. Nobody can take that away from you.’”

Contact prep sports editor Damon Seiters at dseiters@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4587. Follow @DamonSeiters on Twitter.

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