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'Playing dirty' taking on new meaning with ALA QC baseball

Apr. 8—Matt Palmer knew the American Leadership Academy Queen Creek baseball program was in need of a culture change when he arrived last year.

The Patriots had gone through a major slump as a program, winning a combined eight games in two seasons. That was a major drop off from its 19-win season back in 2018-19 that saw the Patriots contend for the 3A title. But moving up to 4A provided its own challenges, along with losing talent to graduation.

So, Matt Palmer stepped in. The change was apparent almost immediately.

"We're really starting to maneuver into a new age of baseball here at ALA Queen Creek," Matt Palmer said. "Our kids are starting to buy in to it. There's a different level of play and how you practice and how you do things mentally."

Palmer came to ALA Queen Creek by way of Gilbert Christian. That's where his son, junior pitcher Keegan Palmer, got his start in high school baseball.

The eldest Palmer was approached by former ALA Queen Creek Athletic Director Jeff Oliverson about the job opening with the baseball program. At first, Matt Palmer was hesitant.

However, when he realized a change may be good for Keegan, he agreed. The two both transitioned to the ALA Queen Creek campus. Matt Palmer immediately went to work establishing a new culture.

"The mindset for us is, you're going to play hard and you're going to play dirty," Matt Palmer said. "Not play dirty as in hurting people, but you're not going to be afraid of what to do. You're going to play hard. Plain and simple."

The Patriot players bought in to the new mindset almost immediately. They, too, knew a change was needed if they wanted to get back to a place where they could contend for titles.

The senior class last season was a big proponent for Matt Palmer to establish the team's new identity. They backed him up and had the players below them fall in line.

There was a mutual respect right away between players and Matt Palmer. He spent 13 years chasing his dream at the professional level of baseball. He spent five seasons in the majors as a right-handed pitcher with the San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and San Diego Padres.

He was in the position many, if not all of the ALA Queen Creek players dream to be in. That was reason enough to trust his process.

"He brought a lot more intensity to the team," senior Brady Monsen said. "Coach Matt showed us he really wanted to be here."

Brady Monsen has been key for the Patriots this season. Through 13 games he is batting .462 with 7 RBI.

Matt Palmer credited Monsen with being one of the first leaders to back him as a head coach and have the younger players buy in, too. Monsen said that was easy to do. He knew Matt Palmer was coming in to help provide a better environment, one that focuses on hard work and playing as a team to win ball games.

Stats don't matter to the Patriots. Just wins.

"He came in with that dirty mentality," Manos said. "We all just trust the process. We go hard with everything we do. We play like it's the last game we're going to play."

Manos, like Monsen, also helped establish the culture of the program. Other seniors and juniors played key parts, too, including Seth Nielson, Tayden Brewer and Keegan Palmer, a pitcher who is also the son of Matt Palmer.

Keegan couldn't help but smile at the thought of playing for his dad, both out of joy and knowing how tough it truly is.

Being 'the coach's kid' comes with scrutiny, some banter and most importantly, high expectations. But Keegan has started to churn out a legacy of himself.

He can throw in the upper 80s as of right now. He believes by the time the season nears its end, he'll reach the 90-mark. He has eight strikeouts and has given up five earned runs in just over six innings of work.

Those are both marks he knows he can improve on to further help the team make a run despite being overlooked.

"I have a lot more work to get done to get to where he was," Keegan Palmer said. "We've always been underdogs but this team now, especially this year, is completely different than any other team I've been on. We'll get up there."

At 10-6 overall and 9-3 in AIA play, the Patriots know there's more work to be done this season. They've won games they felt they should've won but lost some that they believe should have gone their way.

But that's the nature of the game. Matt Palmer emphasizes never getting too down on themselves in times of struggle, both individually and as a team.

He believes they've taken strides since last season. As long as they continue to do that and play dirty, he's confident his team will be in the mix come May.

"The biggest thing for me is it will all be based on our pitching," Matt Palmer said. "Our hitting, things happen. The pitchers will evolve and be the ones to get us to where we want to be at. We're that team that is going to scrap."

Have an interesting story? Contact Zach Alvira at (480)898-5630 or zalvira@timespublications.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.