Story and photos by Kurt Johnson
A year ago, after dropping its first state tournament game, the Pleasant Grove High baseball team had to take the hard road in its hopes of winning the state championship. The Vikings got within one win (and one run in the final game) of getting that trophy, but coming that close before missing out was just the beginning for this group.
“I didn’t have to use it (as motivation),” said Pleasant Grove head coach Darrin Henry. “They use it every day. They are so hungry and they’ve been hungry since the minute it got over.”
Henry’s son Payton is a junior catcher who came inches short of putting the Vikings in position to win that game on a long blast. The UNLV-bound power hitter and his teammates are determined that this year’s result will be just a little bit better.
“I think, honestly, we worked a lot harder because we don’t want to be in that second position again,” Payton said. “Our goal is to be ranked one and be No. 1, postseason. That’s what we’ve emphasized on. We came up one run short and we’re not trying to come up one run short again. That’s what I think motivated us coming into this season.”
Last year’s success brought lessons the Vikings are using this season, as they have spent much of the year ranked No. 1 in the state while working their way towards another Region 4 championship.
“Last year was my first year as a starter, so I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” said senior second baseman Ben Eldredge. “We got into the state tournament and I didn’t know how I was going to perform, so I was kind of nervous. I think we did a really good job of slowing down every moment, every pitch and taking it just one at a time, acting like there was no pressure on us. It was just another playoff game.”
“We’ve learned how to grind through longer than just a few innings,” said pitcher and shortstop Easton Walker. “We’ve come up with the term ‘Clutch City’ is what we use. We take inning by inning and pitch by pitch. No matter what the score, there’s no other way but to come back and fight and that’s really what we do. You just keep grinding every single inning and try to win the inning. If we lose one inning, the next’s innings our next goal and we’re going to take that next inning and try to win that one.”
Prepared to Finish
To prepare for the season the team did a 12-hour-long overnight practice, back in February. It was a collection of team building and conditioning, CrossFit and coming together as a team.
“One thing I think about is our overnight practice that we had, how hard we worked,” said pitcher Logan Carlson. “We’re never going to stop or give up, even when it’s hard, we don’t care, we’re going to grind and we’re going to come out on top.”
Whatever the motivation and regardless of the tactics used, it is all paying off for Pleasant Grove so far. This is a team that, at times this season, has found itself with a high national ranking. Coach Henry and his players echo the same sentiment about the ranking, that it’s not the high ranking this team is looking for
“It’s an honor for the program, it really is, but in the big picture, we haven’t won a state championship here in a long time and we only want to be ranked No. 1 in our state after the last game’s over,” Coach Henry said. “I’ve told the boys for quite a while, ‘Let’s just let everyone else talk about us and let everyone else do whatever, but we’ve got to be worker bees and just keep perfecting the fundamentals.’
“If we can be the best at working hard at the fundamentals, then that’s what I care about more than the national rankings, but it sure is a pleasure for the program and it’s a pleasure for these boys to see some results of how hard they have worked. What does it mean? It doesn’t mean anything, we all know that. At the end of the year, we can have the ranking that we want, and that’s in the state.”
One of Coach Henry’s greatest advantages is the depth of this baseball program and the number of players to whom he can turn for big plays.
“We don’t say one through nine on our team, we say one through everybody,” Payton Henry said. “We have three pinch hitters there and two of them get hits. You can’t just count on one through nine, you’ve got to have those other guys come through in the clutch too, and they did. We believe in them just as much as they believe in us, and we all believe in the process and that’s why we all get stuff done like that. Those guys grind just as hard as we do.”
It gives their coach a great feeling of confidence no matter where he is in the batting order with a game on the line.
“I don’t get nervous with this team,” Coach Henry said. “I know that we’re going to compete and we’re going to do our best job to have the absolute best swings in the batter’s box and stuff like that and so I still like our chances every time. Maybe it’s a blessing that I don’t get that worried, but hopefully the team feels that from me as well because I have a lot of confidence in them, so I don’t get that worried.”
The Vikings have compiled an impressive record, and they rarely lose, but that doesn’t mean everything is, or has been, easy. Their very first region game featured a huge rally to come from behind at American Fork, an early sign that this season might be different.
“We have a saying that we’re never out of the fight,” Coach Henry said. “It kind of comes from American Sniper and we’re just never out of the fight. These guys are good at taking one out at a time and realizing that our line-up one through nine, or 15, or whatever guys we need can or will do the job for us. We really believe in each other and we never panic and never think we’re out of a game. That’s just the way we do it. Does it always result in the way we want it to? Probably not, but we have the right mindset going into it.”
There is a calm confidence with this group of players that starts at the top and is carried onto the field by their leaders.
“Everything stays the same,” Walker said. “It’s still the game of baseball and every day is a new day and you’ve got new opportunities. New things are going to take place, new guys are going to step in and get the job done and it’s just another day to have some fun and play the greatest game ever.”
And every one of these players knows what it will take to find success in the postseason.
“I think the key is to stay together, to stay hungry and stay humble,” Eldredge said.
Those are things this group learned a year ago, and they are fed by coming up one run short of the goal in the end. Lessons learned from that experience fuel that hunger for a different result in 2015.
“One thing is, coach always tells us, ‘Don’t be fat cats, stay hungry,’ and I think that’s what we did,” Carlson said. “We kind of let up a little that first game at state, and we started getting it going. We knew we got to figure it out right now and we did figure out and we stayed hungry. No matter what team, we didn’t overlook them at all.”
“I think we learned that we had to come together big time and just play with each other,” Payton said. “You have to come together to go as far as we did. Everybody was just so positive and so upbeat about what we were doing and that’s why we made it so far. We played our game, we didn’t try to overdo it, but everybody knew when we stepped on the field that we were going to beat them.”
Walker says that opening game loss keeps Pleasant Grove focused on the moment. It helps them all avoid looking too far down the road.
“One thing we really learned as starters out there on the field and as a team coming together, we really learned how to take each and every game game-by-game,” Walker said. “The next game’s the most important game, we didn’t look ahead at all. You can’t look ahead to the second inning, look at the first inning, that first pitch and doing what we could to take advantage of what was happening with that pitch, to get that out, to give a team what they earned and not let things slip out of our hands. We really learned how to grind together and become a team.”
Now, after surviving one of the state’s most difficult regions, the Vikings feel they are well prepared to get that final ranking they so desire. The Region 4 competition, particularly with their two closest rivals at Lone Peak and American Fork helps in that readiness.
“We can compare ourselves and keep working our butts off and see if we’re going to figure this out,” Coach Henry said. “We’ve taught our players to embrace it. We embrace it. We’ve learned to do hard things. We do a lot of different kind of workouts than other teams do. They work just as hard as us, but we try it find a way to embrace hard things and get it going.”