MAGNA — Cyprus pitcher Taylor Jones loves to be involved in big games. The 6-foot-3, left-hander wants the opportunity to rise to the occasion. He loves the pressure, the atmosphere. Most of all, he loves to come out on top in a big-time game.
"There is nothing better than going out and beating a team that is supposed to be the best," said Jones after his Pirates ended Cottonwood's nearly three-year unbeaten streak in 4A competition. "I wanted to throw against them, and I wanted to beat them. When my pitch count got a little bit high, there was no way I was coming out. My arm would have had to fall off for me not to be out there."
The good news for Jones and the rest of his teammates is that there should be more big games in their future. The Pirates return eight starters from last year's 16-10 team that won a couple of playoff games, and many of those players are starting for a third year.
"We have a great group of players," said coach Bob Fratto. "Frankly, we don't have any excuses left on why we shouldn't win. The last couple of years we were young, or missing something here or there, but with these guys, there isn't any reason why we can't be a good team. We are at the point where if we go out and play good baseball, we should win. We couldn't always say that before, but now, we have the talent and experience to play with anyone."
The Pirates boast a one-two punch on the mound that matches up with any team not only in Region 6, but in the state with Jones and Dexter Fisher. A third starter and some relief pitchers are something the team is still working on, but with the caliber of players up and down the lineup, the Pirates may not always need to hold an opponent under five, or even on occasion 10 runs to get a win.
Along with Jones and Fisher, Austin Pollock, Austin Shakespear and Jordan Ikari were Region 6 all-region first- or second-team selections last season, and they appear to have just picked up where they left off. Even some of those top-of-the-lineup hitters are struggling at the plate, players such as Cody Butler, RJ Naranjo or Justin Eggers can pick up the slack.
"One of the things about this team is that you never know who is going to do the damage," said Eggers after the Pirates game against Layton, a game Cyprus won 11-8 thanks to Eggers' grand slam. "We all just encourage each other. If one of us is having an off day, we always are trying to help the guy out, build him up not tear him down. One through nine we all can get it done."
The Pirates have the talent. They have the experience, and now, they have the expectations to challenge for a region title and more.
Region 6 capsules
(finishing order as predicted by the region's coaches)
1. COTTONWOOD: The Colts lost only two seniors from last season's state champions, but they were the heart and soul of that team. They need to find some new leadership if they want to win a fourth consecutive title. Kyle Beverley is one of the top hitters in the state, and newcomer Ryan Thomas will be a big boost. Kendall Mayer is as good as they come on the mound. If the team can gel, they will once again be the team to beat. 2007 RECORD: 23-3. PLAYOFFS: 4A state champions.
2. CYPRUS: This is the season that the Pirates have been building toward for three years. The team now has plenty of experience with many three-year starters. Taylor Jones can dominate teams when he has his good stuff, and Dexter Fisher helps make a potent one-two combo on the mound. Austin Pollock, Austin Shakespear and Jordan Ikari were all either first or second team all-region last season. 2007 RECORD: 16-10. PLAYOFFS: Lost in 4A semifinals.
3. MURRAY: No player has begun the year showing as much power-hitting as the Spartan's Brandt Anderson. This three-year starter is the backbone to the team. Chase Rezac and Nate Davis were starters last year on last year's second-place team. Joe Facco has had some solid contributions for this team that has a new coach in Jake Shoemate. 2007 RECORD: 20-8. PLAYOFFS: Won four playoff games.
4. GRANGER: The Lancers have come out of the gates much slower than everyone expected. They returned several players that were instrumental in the team winning two playoff games last year and were hoping to build on that momentum. It hasn't happened so far, but Kelton Cotterman, Clint Felion, Jordan Puffer and Thayne Fue have the talent and experience to hopefully get the team back on track. 2007 RECORD: 11-15. PLAYOFFS: Won two playoff games.
5. OLYMPUS: Coach Dave Wiseman said he has high hopes, but modest expectations for his squad filled mainly with underclassmen. The four seniors that return all have the potential to have big seasons as Justin Davis, Andrew Jones, Preston Fairbourn and Nick Wood were some of the team's leaders last season as well. 2007 RECORD: 8-18. PLAYOFFS: Won two playoff games.
6. WEST: The Panthers lost seven senior-starters from last season's club and will be looking to rebuild. Jake Zumbrunnen, CJ Salinas and Scott Floisand are all seniors and three-year starters that will be the glue that holds this team together as it hopes some underclassmen can emerge to fill the large voids vacated. 2007 RECORD: 11-14. PLAYOFFS: Won two playoff games.
7. EAST: New coach Tony Siciliano is the third head man in three years. He hopes to stabilize the program and build it back into a contender. Eric Bohling was an all-region selection, and Casey Groves has started behind the plate for three years. Sam Makoff had a winning record on the mound, and Nick Hagen was an honorable mention all-state athlete. 2007 RECORD: 7-14. PLAYOFFS: Lost in play-in game.
8. HIGHLAND: Coach Dan Shwam has the youngest team in the region, maybe even the state with 15 freshmen filling out the roster. Joey Santora and Sam Nielson have made some noise for the team, and they are off to a positive start. Only time and experience can help the squad. 2007 RECORD: 4-20. PLAYOFFS: Lost in play-in game.