Related article: Overcoming adversity defined Snow Canyon baseball team
KEARNS — In the end, all the adversity that the Snow Canyon High School baseball team had to overcome simply served to bring the Warriors' ballclub closer together and make them even stronger.
A year ago, they reached the finals of the 4A tournament, one win away from a state championship, only to suffer the terrible disappointment of losing twice on the final day to Spanish Fork and be denied the coveted title.
Then this season, the Warriors were forced to forfeit four region wins — all of them shutout victories, including three by double digits — for using a player who had transferred from Las Vegas to the St. George school, but was later ruled ineligible.
On Saturday morning, Snow Canyon was again one win away from clinching the state title, this time in the 3A tournament, only to lose to three-time defending state champion Juan Diego 2-0 and force a second winner-take-all showdown.
And when junior Riley Gates, their first baseman and star left-handed pitcher, went down with a hamstring injury in the sixth inning of Saturday's first game, you could have forgiven Snow Canyon for feeling like, perhaps somehow, it had angered the baseball gods and was being punished.
But, galvanized by all those tough, trying times they had endured together, the Warriors weren't about to let that elusive top prize slip away from them again.
Instead, they got a solid pitching performance from senior Michael Jensen and a couple of clutch base hits and some strong relief pitching from senior Austin Ovard to win Saturday's final game, 5-1, over Juan Diego and claim the 3A crown at Kearns High's Gates Field.
Not bad for a team that had to win a play-in game just to get into this year's state tournament.
"With the forfeit thing, it made us come together closer as a family more than ever," said Jensen, who threw five sparkling innings, allowing one run on five hits in his first start since March. "We had to buckle down and we knew we could do it, and we came through and got it done. We didn't want to finish how we did last year. It's not fun going through that."
"After what happened last year and being on the other side of it, and then after everything that's happened to us this year with the (forfeit) losses and stuff, it makes it even better," said Ovard, who went 2-for-3 with three RBIs, scored a run and pitched two scoreless innings to nail down the title-taking victory.
Somewhat amazingly, Snow Canyon (21-9) won despite having just two base hits — both of them by Ovard, who came through twice to knock in three of the Warriors' runs.
In the fourth inning, with Snow Canyon trailing 1-0, Ovard singled to right field to bring in the Warriors' first run. He stole second, went to third on wild pitch and scored on sacrifice fly to catcher Brady Sargent. The Warriors added another run on a Juan Diego error to grab a 3-1 lead.
Then in the fifth, another Soaring Eagle error and a walk put two runners on base and, after a double steal pushed them into scoring position, Ovard stroked a single to left field, bringing in two more runs for a 5-1 lead.
"Being a senior, that's what you want," Ovard said. "You want to be put in that position where you've gotta get it done. And luckily it worked for me today and I came through, and the rest of the team did great getting on base, so it was good. Of course, I'm shaking (with nerves) but definitely that's where I want to be (up to bat) at the right time.
"We've been here before, but this time it actually worked for us. It feels great, I mean, there's no feeling like it, especially beating a team like that's really a good ballclub."
Ovard had taken the hard-luck loss in Saturday's first game, when he allowed just four hits in a solid complete-game pitching performance but got out-done by Juan Diego's Kade Wagner, who twirled a four-hit shutout and struck out six to give the Soaring Eagle a chance at a fourth straight state championship.
After Juan Diego's first two batters reached base in the bottom of the sixth, and with Gates hobbled by his injury and unable to walk, much less pitch, Ovard was called upon again to come on and try and shut the door for the Warriors.
He did just that, too, striking out the first three batters he faced before retiring the side without incident in the seventh, capping it with another strikeout.
"He's something special," Snow Canyon coach Reed Secrist said of Ovard. "He's one of the best players in the state and I'm glad he's on my team, and I'm going to hate seeing him go. But he's going on to bigger and better things, so that's awesome for him.
"It was like, hey, let's get to the sixth, Mikey (Jensen) did a great job and then let's turn it over to (Ovard) because he wants this thing. Well, Mikey did, too, there's no doubt about it. The last game (Jensen) started was in March against Pine View. We kept playing intersquad games because I knew we had so many pitchers we weren't going to get to him. He pitched every intersquad game during the week and he really took those in and worked hard, and obviously it paid off for him today.
"He beat Spanish on this mound right here last year … and it was great to get him out back here again and see him work his magic through five innings," Secrist said. "I knew Austin was going to get it done. The biggest thing with Austin is he throws strikes. I think he's got like 80 strikeouts to like six walks or something, just ugly, so it's like let's get him in there and throw strikes."
Coach Secrist admitted he was somewhat apprehensive after his team lost Saturday's first game, just as they did a year ago against Spanish Fork. But after those forfeitures forced his team to play do-or-die baseball for the last two weeks of the season, they had grown accustomed to playing under such intense pressure.
Between games, he tried to keep them loose yet focused on the task at hand.
"I said, 'Hey, you know what, we've been here before, we've played single-elimination ball all the way through,' " Secrist said. "I basically just said, 'Hey, your backs are against the wall and we're gonna come out and get this done, and you'd better get on board and get it done.' And you know what? That's exactly what they did. It was a great team effort, that's for sure.
"It's nice, because after we got beat in that first one, I'm sitting there thinking 'We can't have deja vu.' What a bad feeling that was last year. And it's sweet to get that out of the way. But after we got beat in that first one, I got a little nervous to be honest with you."
Juan Diego coach Troy Davis, whose team lost to Snow Canyon in a nine-inning, first-round matchup a week earlier, was hoping tourney nerves might get to the Warriors and allow the proud Soaring Eagle (23-8) program to continue its quest for a fourth straight crown by climbing all the way back through the loser's bracket.
"These kids just had heart and desire but ran out of gas a little bit," Davis said. "You sure couldn't tell that mentally with these kids because they competed all the way through it. I loved their chances, especially after beating them the first game ... I thought we were gonna roll through it.
"That's a tough, long road we went through. You lose that first game and you look at the bracket, and you've got seven games to play, seven games to win it. But I knew we had a shot, and we relied on a lot of young arms, young kids pitching. Dillon Delgado, a freshman, did a great job for us, Ryan Green, and of course our two horses, Kade Wagner and Bubba Carr, both were just solid all tournament. It kind of rolled out the way we thought it would, as far as the arms, we just couldn't get it done today.
"I've gotta hand it to coach Secrist and those guys," Davis said. "They battled through some adversity themselves down there with what was going on. That's a good ballclub. and congratulations to them. I sure liked the feeling we had last year that they're having right now as opposed to the feeling I'm having right now. A fourth one would've been so sweet when it was so close.
"I feel for our seniors — they've never experienced this before, this is their first loss and it's tough for them, it's tough. … I'm really proud of 'em and I really appreciated the example that our older kids portrayed to our younger guys, and that's what builds a program, watching these older kids teaching them how we play Juan Diego baseball. … They did some great things in this tournament."
3A All-Tournament Team
MVP: Austin Ovard, Snow Canyon
Riley Gates, Snow Canyon
Chandler Day, Snow Canyon
Michael Jensen, Snow Canyon
Kade Wagner, Juan Diego
Croyden Carr, Juan Diego
Kayden Porter, Spanish Fork
Hayden Nielsen, Spanish Fork
Related article: Overcoming adversity defined Snow Canyon baseball team