Desert Mountain junior catcher Luke Moeller was looking for a bit of an escape from a heartbreaking reality when he entered the 5A state baseball championship with his team.
His grandfather, Jim, had just passed away two days prior. While the Wolves’ ultimate goal has always been to capture the state championship a year after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the season, the ability to win it for Moeller’s grandfather was added motivation.
“We really wanted to have this game, have it for Jim,” Desert Mountain senior shortstop Wes Kath said. “Also, for our seniors last year, it’s a big win for them, too.”
With his grandfather looking over him, Moeller drove in three total runs and helped break the game open for the Wolves in the fourth inning. An exclamation point of sorts by Kath in the sixth sealed it.
Desert Mountain, the No. 3 seed in the 5A Conference tournament, went on to beat fifth-ranked Sunrise Mountain 6-1 Tuesday afternoon at Tempe Diablo Stadium to win its first baseball championship since 2013.
“I just wanted to go out and do the best I could and do it for him because he wanted to be here with my grandma,” said Moeller, who wrote his grandfather’s initials on the back of his hat ahead of Tuesday’s championship game. “He followed the whole season. I couldn’t be more happy to play that well for him and I know he’s watching down on us right now.”
Moeller finished 2-for-3 at the plate and helped Desert Mountain junior pitcher Toby Haarer tame a Sunrise Mountain team that averaged nearly eight runs per game this season. In a way, it was redemption for the junior right-handed pitcher.
The last meeting between the two teams on May 5 was won in nine innings by Sunrise Mountain. The Mustangs, facing Wolves’ Haarer, recorded eight hits and six total runs in two innings against him.
Haarer realized he had an opportunity to redeem himself on the grandest of stages in Arizona high school baseball and told the Desert Mountain coaching staff he wanted the ball on the mound to start the championship game.
Despite hitting four total batters on the day, Haarer maintained control of the game. He allowed four hits in 6 1/3 innings and one run which came after he was called for a balk in the third inning. He also recorded three total strikeouts.
“(Haarer) said on Saturday, ‘coach, that’s my ball I’m going to get this done,' Desert Mountain head coach Ryan Dyer said. “I couldn’t be more proud of Toby tonight. He did everything you’d ask of a guy who wants the ball.”
Desert Mountain’s bats started to come alive early on in the first. After Kath was walked, a single to short soon after resulted in an errant throw to first. It was the only error of the game for either team, but it proved to be costly for Sunrise Mountain.
One batter later, Moeller drove in the Wolves’ first run of the game.
Desert Mountain’s next run came two innings later as Cooper McKee doubled to left field. In the fourth, the Wolves blew the game open with a three-run inning -- two of which off the bat of Moeller.
“I think I always knew I definitely could, it was just if I was going to let the pressure not impact me,” Moeller said of his impact at the plate. “I think I did a really good job before the game and even throughout just staying calm and reminding myself it’s a team game and if I do something wrong, I know I’ve got another guy that’s going to back me up.
“They did that today and it’s an awesome experience.”
Desert Mountain has been led all season by Kath. The senior standout and probable first-round pick in July’s MLB Draft batted .456 with 20 RBI and 10 home runs heading into Tuesday’s championship game. He finished his high school career with 21 RBI after he was walked with the bases loaded in the fourth and 11 homers after his sixth-inning blast.
Kath was also called upon in the top of the seventh with Desert Mountain just two outs away from the title to take over for Haarer on the mound. He struck out the first batter he faced before giving up a double to left field.
Then, however, he forced a line out to left to seal the game.
“There was no other person in America that could go on the mound at that point,” Dyer said. “That’s a storybook ending for a storybook career in high school, and this is just the start of a lot of great things for Wes Kath.”
Kath embraced his coaches and teammates, often with trophy in hand. He rushed over to the Desert Mountain faithful that made the short trip from Scottsdale to watch the Wolves capture the title.
To him, it was a culmination of two years of hard work since the pandemic took away his junior season.
“Coming back from the COVID year last year, this meant everything,” Kath said. “This is my family. I’m just super excited for my team, for the fans and for this school.”