WHITERIVER — Despite having a losing record and staying home for the playoffs this baseball season, the Alchesay Falcons are soaring and feeling good about themselves.
The Falcons are just happy they were finally playing baseball or any other sport. While other schools in Arizona were playing fall and winter sports during the health pandemic, the Whiteriver Unified School District forced its teams to sit idle until this spring.
“I’ve never been through anything like it here or anywhere else,” said David Wilson, athletic director at Alchesay High School. “In the fall, one of the subcommittees I was on said we don’t need to play in the fall and so we went with that recommendation to the board at that time. Of course they passed it. When it was time for the winter sports I’d been receiving stuff from the AIA and other folks about how we could play the games, stream it to the people. The board considered it for a while, but in the end the ladies we talked to and listened to at the (Indian Health Service) up here said they still didn’t think it was a good idea. Our numbers were better but they weren’t good so we canceled the winter sports as well.”
On March 17, the Falcons’ baseball team played the school’s first official game of any kind since sports were shut down in early 2020. Alchesay lost that game at Tucson Tanque Verde, but on Friday the Falcons beat Blue Ridge 8-7, ending a years-long losing streak against the Yellowjackets and concluding the season on senior night at home.
The Falcons finished this season 3-11, but coach Ray Acosta could not be more proud. Friday’s victory was the first over Blue Ridge (7-5, 8-7 overall) during Acosta’s nine years in Whiteriver. He added that some people connected to the program believe the Falcons’ last win over the Yellowjackets came in the 1970s.
“It feels good. Bragging rights for a year in the mountains. LOL. We played a great game. It was a great crowd for both teams and a great way to end the season on SENIOR NIGHT,” he expressed in a text message Saturday.
Junior Ezekiel Walker pitched a complete game to lead the Falcons.
Two seasons ago in Class 2A, Acosta believes, Alchesay was close to making a breakthrough in baseball and had been a good team even before 2019.
“We were successful for the last six, seven years, going to the playoffs (and) two years ago finally got our first-round win in the playoffs. Last year we had the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Acosta said of the team that was 7-0 when all sports were canceled by COVID-19. “We had a good freshmen class. They were all part of the same all-star team. We had a good championship-caliber team and COVID hit. Needless to say, I lost about six, seven seniors. It’s been an adjustment. We got moved up to 3A. Our population caused us to move up. Obviously the program is still the same. I only have about 20 players for my whole program. We don’t have a JV team this year because the district voted to have just the varsity. But we’re happy that we’re playing. I didn’t expect to play 15, 16 games. I figured we’d play eight. We’ve managed to put in a good season. We’ve struggled in our own region.”
The night before the big win over Blue Ridge, the Falcons were walloped 14-0 by visiting St. Johns in a five-inning mercy rule game.
In this season, game scores are secondary to the Falcons. Acosta and his team — led by seniors Ally Cosay and Trent Sprengeler — take pride in having a presence in the Whiteriver community.
“They felt like they finally had something to do around here,” Acosta said of his players when the district finally relented to sports activity. “The guys have been put in a tough situation. They were on lockdown because of COVID. They struggled with that. They were kept on the reservation. They were kept in their households. It was different. And now we get to go do some stuff outside. Of course we had to follow guidelines. We still have temperature checks. Some of these kids that were waiting to play football and waiting to play basketball they finally got something to do and it brought a little to life. Not only that, when we started practicing and playing games you could feel the community come to life. It felt like it was dead because of all the restrictions they had for the whole year. There was excitement you could tell. This is the only thing happening in Whiteriver. It feels like the town is coming to life with baseball coming back, and softball and track. It’s been a good thing for the community and for these kids. It’s a healthy thing. They get to get out and do what they want and enjoy themselves. If you were here in the summer, or even the fall, you wouldn’t see a car out. It was dead. Even when we’re practicing we’ll see cars pass by honking, letting us know that they got our backs. There’s a lot of support.”
Now baseball and softball seasons have ended for Alchesay — a handful of track athletes are still active — and soon football will take over the community’s focus. The Falcons did not field a gridiron team in 2020, unlike all other schools in the White Mountains.
Alchesay football coach Brandon Newcomb, also an assistant baseball coach, is experiencing some déjà vu while he anticipates a 2021 football season.
“It’s going to be a good relief, exciting feeling to be getting back,” said Newcomb, who guided the Falcons to a 7-0 and 8-2 overall record in the 2A Little Colorado Region in 2019. For the upcoming season, the Falcons will be contending with 2020 state champion Snowflake and the rest of the 3A East Division. “I’m looking at it like starting a program all over again. This is going to be my third time doing it. We didn’t win a game last year so we look at it that way, and we didn’t finish with any kids. It’s going to be an adventure getting kids out and getting into the groove of things. I think we’re pretty fortunate the first four or five games we play are against schools in similar situations — Window Rock, San Carlos, Greyhills and Pinon, and then we have to play Miami and Holbrook. Hopefully we can get our legs under us and get back in the swing of things. We’ll have the summer to iron things out and get back into shape. A lot of these kids we hadn’t seen in a year. Everything was locked down. We didn’t recognize some of them because they’ve aged. It’s going to be a task.”