No titles, but good Utah Valley stories at state baseball tourney

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Pleasant Grove's Payton Henry celebrates a go-ahead two-run double Friday. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Pleasant Grove’s Payton Henry celebrates a go-ahead two-run double Friday. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Last year featured an all-Utah Valley Class 4A final in the state baseball tournament, and the first state title for Salem Hills. While there were not state baseball championships for Valley teams in 2014, there were plenty of positive stories and a reminder that the baseball programs in this part of the state are still very much alive and well.

As the state tournaments wound down this week at Brent Brown Ballpark on campus at Utah Valley University, there were some great Utah Valley storylines. Here are some of the highlights:

 

The end of an Era at Spanish Fork

Brady Bate heads home after his second home run for Spanish Fork Thursday. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Brady Bate heads home after his second home run for Spanish Fork Thursday. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

It was the stuff of movie scripts — outstanding coach spends his entire career at his alma mater and leads them to a state championship as his final act. Even a third-round loss to Mountain Crest only seemed to increase the drama as the Spanish Fork High baseball team seemed poised to send the state’s winningest all-time coach, Jim “Shoe” Nelson, out with his seventh championship banner.

The intensity of the moment increased Wednesday night, when the Dons were down 4–0 heading into the sixth inning against Box Elder. A four-run sixth, some outstanding pitching from senior Maverick Buffo and an exciting extra-inning come-from-behind victory got Spanish Fork into the final three teams.

After dominating the rematch with Mountain Crest, the Dons were unable to finish the story exactly the way they wanted to as they dropped a tough 6–4 game to Bountiful in the state title game Friday morning. It was the third second-place finish for a Nelson-led team to go with those six state championships.

Nelson will retire from coaching after 29 years as the head man at Spanish Fork. He accumulated 573 wins, the most in state history and led his teams to 17 region titles. Now he leaves some big shoes for someone else to fill.

 

The Brady Bate Show

Before Friday’s disappointment for Spanish Fork came Thursday’s offensive explosion. Almost lost in the 16-run, 15-hit performance was the fact that, in a game shortened to five innings by the mercy rule, senior Brady Bate threw a no-hitter.

The 16–0 win over Mountain Crest had a ton of highlights, but first and foremost it was a showcase for Bate. He hit a home run in his first at-bat of the game to get things started for the Dons, and then he blasted a second long ball the last time he stepped into the box.

Spanish Fork scored in every inning, and except for the single run it hung in the initial stanza, all of those innings featured at least three scores.

Perhaps even more rare than a no-hitter, the Thursday victory provided another signature highlight of the tournament — an inside-the-park grand slam home run. A pair of walks and an infield single set the table for the Dons in the top half of the fourth, and after Ryan Golish singled in a run, sophomore Nic Roberts cleaned the bases, but no in the conventional style.

The Spanish Fork right fielder ripped a sinking line drive to centerfield that prompted an all-out effort from Mustang centerfielder Luke Smith. The senior came up just short on his dive and the ball skipped past him and rolled to the wall, opening the door for Roberts to unleash his speed. He scored standing up, on the heels of his three teammates.

Spanish Fork's Nic Roberts crosses the plate with an inside-the-park grand slam. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Spanish Fork’s Nic Roberts crosses the plate with an inside-the-park grand slam. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

 

Redemption for Maverick Buffo

Senior Maverick Buffo was a stalwart pitcher all year long for Spanish Fork, so when he had one of his worst outings in the 6–0 loss to Mountain Crest that sent the Dons to the elimination bracket, it was a tough pill to swallow. At times like that, the best medicine is usually to get right back out there.

Perhaps entering the game to inherit a bases-loaded no-out jam was not exactly what he had in mind, but that is what Spanish Fork asked of Buffo Wednesday night. In the third inning of that contest, the Dons were already down 3–0, and Box Elder had jammed the bags with no outs.

Enter Buffo, who proceeded to get a pair of strikeouts and a harmless infield pop up to escape the mess. Eventually, the Dons staged their dramatic comeback to tie the game at 4–4 after regulation. Run-scoring hits from Hayes Hall and Brock Nelson put Spanish Fork on top in the ninth, and then Buffo closed out a sensational seven innings with two more of his 11 strikeouts in setting down the Bees in the home half of the final frame to complete the victory.

 

Impressive run from Pleasant Grove

Winning an extremely competitive Region 4 positioned Pleasant Grove as one of the favorites in Class 5A as the playoffs began, but that does not mean teams are going to lay down. The Vikings found that out when another team of Vikings, Viewmont, came calling in the postseason opener and sent Pleasant Grove directly to the elimination bracket.

Teams are not supposed to survive a tournament loss that comes that early and essentially puts them in a position of needing to win eight games in nine days to win a state title. The nature of that task was daunting and that alone made it a surprise when it was the Vikings who showed up Friday to take on Jordan for the 5A state title.

Pleasant Grove started the run with a five-inning 10–0 win over Hillcrest and then ran off six straight wins this week before falling just one run short in the ultimate championship game against the Beetdiggers. The Vikings seemed to take out their frustrations with their bats in the first three games following the Viewmont loss, a trio of contests they won by a collective 36–3 count.

Then came a pair of dramatic battles, a nine-inning win over Copper Hills in which Pleasant Grove scored the game-winner on a Brody Blackhurst single in the ninth and a 5–4 win that eliminated defending state champion Bingham when Payton Henry broke a 4–4 tie with a run-scoring knock in the sixth. Those wins put the Vikings in the last group of three teams.

Easton Walker was an all-around catalyst during Pleasant Grove's state tourney run. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Easton Walker was an all-around catalyst during Pleasant Grove’s state tourney run. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

A seven-run second inning Thursday set the stage for a short night’s work as Pleasant Grove eliminated last year’s runner-up, Layton, 12–0 to reach the Friday finale. That meant the Vikings needed to beat Jordan twice to take home the big trophy.

Two games that ended with the same score were the result, as two-RBI hits by Bub Wilde (in the second) and Payton Henry (in the fifth) carried the day in a 4–3 Pleasant Grove win that forced a final deciding battle between the same two teams. In the nightcap, Jordan scored three in the top half of the third to open a 4–1 advantage, and then held on behind the pitching of Morgan Gomez for the 4–3 win that left the Vikings in second place.

Pleasant Grove had just one hit after the third inning against Gomez.

 

Clutch hitting Vikings

Throughout the winning streak that carried Pleasant Grove to the brink of a state title, its hitting was on full display. The Vikings got some outstanding pitching as well from the likes of Easton Walker, Jade Smoot, Logan Carlson and Payton Henry, but especially when they needed clutch performances at the dish, they got them.

Wilde and Henry had big hits Friday and in other games, and lead-off hitter Easton Walker was a huge catalyst for the Viking offense, but there were also critical moments from Ben Eldredge, Smoot, Zach Peterson, Brody Blackhurst, Chase Merrell and Brayden Cox along the way.

In all, Pleasant Grove scored 70 runs in its nine tournament games.

 

Walker impresses

Sometimes when you sit in the stands and watch baseball, a player jumps out at you for reasons other than impressive statistics. Pleasant Grove’s Easton Walker is an outstanding lead-off hitter. He can hit, hit for power, get down a bunt and he can run.

During this tournament, he almost pitched a no-hitter in one game, and he was very impressive in his final pitching performance, the Friday win over Jordan. The thing that stood out the most was the ease with which he plays the game, and that is most noticeable when he makes plays at shortstop.

PG's Brayden Cox (20) and Chase Merrell (7) celebrate a big state tournament moment. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

PG’s Brayden Cox (20) and Chase Merrell (7) celebrate a big state tournament moment. (Photo by Kurt Johnson)

Between the Vikings and Jordan, there were nine errors committed in Friday’s two games, but when Walker was at short and a ball was hit that way, I always felt like the out was automatic. The junior will be critical as Pleasant Grove looks to get back here again next season for another shot at the state title.

 

Other Utah Valley teams

Lone Peak might have finished third in Region 4, but of those teams from that rough region, it was the Knights who stayed unbeaten the longest in postseason play. Two road wins against Davis and Taylorsville got Lone Peak to a matchup with Jordan. It lost 4–3 to the Beetdiggers and then was knocked out by Bingham, but it was a solid performance from the Knights and first-year coach Matt Bezzant.

The defending champions, Salem Hills, had another strong run in the 4A tournament, but the draw got in the way. The Skyhawks won their opener and then lost a one-run decision to eventual state champion Bountiful that sent them to the elimination bracket. After impressive wins over Skyline and Woods Cross, Salem Hills ran into Spanish Fork in an all-Region 8 elimination game that put a premature end to the Skyhawks’ season.

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Kurt Johnson is the owner and managing editor at Preps Utah, a publishing venture that covers high school sports throughout the state of Utah. He previously worked as a sports writer and editor in the Sacramento, California area and with the magazine publishing division at McGraw-Hill. Kurt lives in Provo with his wife, a PhD student at BYU, and his daughter, a student at BYU. He also has two older sons and four grandchildren.

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