The Nogales Apaches will play for the 5A Conference state championship trophy next week after earning a 5-3 bounce-back win over Desert Mountain in the semifinals on Thursday night at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa.

No. 1-seeded Nogales reached the semis after winning their first three tournament games, including a second-round matchup with No. 9 Desert Mountain of Scottsdale, the defending champs. But Desert Mountain, which survived the losers bracket to get another shot at NHS, beat the Apaches 5-3 on Wednesday in Mesa to force a second game.

NHS came back strong Thursday, getting solid pitching from Sal Valenzuela and Saul Soto, along with timely hits from Thomas Teel, Derek Montijo, Luis Martin Romero and Valenzuela, to clinch a spot in next Tuesday’s single-game final against No. 3 Verrado of Buckeye.

The game starts at 4 p.m. at Diablo Stadium in Tempe. Tickets are available here, and for those who can’t make it to the stadium, the game will be broadcast live online by the NFHS Network.

NHS-Desert Mountain

Sal Valenzuela pitches during an early season home game against Rincon/University. He got the start in Thursday’s state tournament semifinal and threw 4 2/3 innings, allowing just two runs.

Valenzuela, the winning pitcher in Nogales’ 5-1 second-round win over Desert Mountain, got the start on Thursday. He set down the Wolves in the first three innings on six fly ball outs and three groundouts, allowing just a two-out single in the second.

After leaving three runners in scoring position and getting another thrown out at second in their first two turns at bat, the Apaches’ offense broke through in the bottom of the third. Demetrio Crisantes led off with a walk and advanced to second on an infield single by Gerardo Paco. After a fly out, Teel brought home Crisantes with a base hit, though Teel was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a double.

Desert Mountain tied the game in top of the fourth when three of the first four batters reached on singles. But with runners on first and second and one out, Crisantes leapt high in the air at shortstop to snare a line drive, then doubled up the runner at second to end the threat.

NHS went back in front in the bottom of the fourth, when Valenzuela doubled to left, scoring Julio Ramos, who had walked. Alan Durazo ran for Valenzuela and stole third. After an intentional walk to Crisantes and an unintentional free pass to Paco loaded the bases, Montijo ripped a single up the middle to score Durazo and Crisantes and give Nogales a 4-1 lead.

Montijo, who normally bats sixth in the Apaches’ lineup, was moved up to the No. 3 spot on Thursday in place of Raenan Padilla, who was hit in the wrist by a pitch in Wednesday’s game. Montijo took advantage of the opportunity by going 3-for-4 in the game with a single, double and triple.

NHS-Desert Mountain

Derek Montijo takes a cut during Wednesday night’s game against Desert Mountain in Mesa. Moved up to the No. 3 spot in the batting order for Thursday’s rematch, he went 3-for-4 with a single, double and triple.

Desert Mountain mounted a two-out rally in the fifth. The No. 9 batter reached on an infield hit, then advanced around the bases on three wild pitches to make it 4-2.

A walk and a single put the tying runs on base, but Soto came on in relief and got the final out of the inning on a fly ball to Gerardo Paco in center.

NHS tacked on another run in the bottom of the fifth. Sergio Valverde was hit by a pitch, stole second, went to third on an errant pickoff attempt, and scored when Romero slapped a single into left field.

The Wolves kept the pressure on in the top of the sixth, cutting the NHS lead to 5-3 on a leadoff double followed by an RBI single. But Soto struck out the next three batters, then set down the side 1-2-3 in the seventh to clinch the victory.

NHS-Desert Mountain

Saul Soto pitches on Wednesday night against Desert Mountain. He took the mound again in Thursday’s rematch, nailing down the win with 2 1/3 innings of work.

Familiar territory

Tuesday’s game in Tempe will mark the Apaches’ fourth trip to a state final in the past five years that a high school baseball state championship tournament has been held in Arizona.

In 2017, NHS ended a 36-year championship drought by defeating Salpointe 13-4 in the 4A Conference title game.

In 2018, they beat Catalina Foothills 3-2 in the final game to repeat as 4A champs.

The next year, their first in the 5A Conference, Nogales met Horizon High School of Scottsdale in the state final and lost 7-4 in a marathon 16-inning game.

There was no state championship in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the No. 6-seeded Apaches were upset in the first round of the 2021 tournament by No. 11 Apollo.

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