Story and photos by Kurt Johnson
When the Pleasant Grove High baseball team lost Game 1 on championship Friday at the 5A state tournament, there was no panic in the ranks. It meant a one-game winner-take-all rematch with a talented Bingham team later that day, and that was something for which the Vikings had been preparing for 12 months.
A year earlier, it was Pleasant Grove winning that first elimination game to force the comeback game, a contest in which inches on a Payton Henry line drive separated the Vikings from the 2014 state title. This time around, the squad rallied late, beat Bingham and collected its state championship trophy.
Pleasant Grove head coach Darrin Henry says he did not need to say much to motivate his team after last year’s finish. That drive came from the players themselves.
“I didn’t have to use it,” Henry said. “They use it every day. They are so hungry and they’ve been hungry since the minute it got over. Just having Payton in my house, he says, ‘People are always coming up and telling him, man if that ball had just been hit six inches higher, you would maybe have won a state tournament, and he says I think about that all the time and that’s why I put in the extra reps in the weight room and put in the extra reps out here, so we don’t have to worry about that again. They’re doing it the right way, they’re hungry.”
That hunger and the season that resulted from it led this team to a No. 5 position in the final USA Today national rankings, and to our selection as the Preps Utah 2014-2015 boys team of the year.
“I think, honestly, we worked a lot harder because we don’t want to be in that second position again,” Payton Henry, a junior catcher, said. “Our goal is to be ranked one and be No. 1, postseason. That’s what we’ve emphasized on. We did everything right and made sure we got the best out of ourselves. 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.”
The Vikings learned a lot in the 2014 title chase that ended with the loss to Jordan. It was a state tournament that began with an opening-round loss and that alone carried lessons these players internalized.
“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,” said this year’s Deseret News Mr. Baseball, Easton Walker. “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.”
Winning From Ahead and Behind
The Vikings finished the season 27-3 and played a lot of games with a lead. Perhaps that could have made it difficult for them when facing a rough stretch or a deficit, but that was not the case.
After winning 15 straight games to begin the season, Pleasant Grove lost 2-of-3 over the course of four days against region rival Lone Peak. It’s response – another 11-game winning streak that was interrupted with that loss to Bingham that forced the “if necessary” finale for the state title.
“I don’t get nervous with this team,” Darrin 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.”
Walker is one of this team’s leaders and he feels that the team is at its best in critical, even difficult situations.
“We’ve learned how to grind through longer than just a few innings. We’ve come up with the term ‘Clutch City’ is what we use,” Walker said. “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.”
It’s an attitude that worked, if not to perfection, to something very near that. There as a comeback from a nine-run deficit in an early-season league game against American Fork, and the Vikings one win over Lone Peak, in the middle game of that three-game set, was a bottom of the seventh come-from-behind, extra-inning finish. It was a game that featured big hits from Henry and first-team all-state second baseman Ben Eldredge, but also from reserves Hayden Veenker and Logan Hooley.
“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.”
Walker batted .418, with 44 runs scored and finished the season with an 8-1 record as the team’s No. 1 pitcher. He struck out 90 batters in 58 innings pitched. Those numbers and his outstanding leadership earned him that Mr. Baseball selection and will take him to Brigham Young University to play next season.
Payton Henry was named 5A MVP, Utah’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a MaxPreps Underclassmen All-American. As a junior, the UNLV- committed catcher, is the state’s most feared offensive player and a particularly skilled defensive backstop. For the season, he batted .527, with 11 doubles, nine home runs and 46 RBI. Henry also drew 25 walks while striking out just eight times, and he was on the mound to close out the state championship game, firing his high-80s fastball to pick up his fifth save of the year as the team’s closer.
Eldredge finished the season as a .495 hitter, with 13 doubles, five home runs and 36 RBI, with 42 runs scored. Outfielder Chase Merrell was another huge contributor to this special season, with a .411 average and 10 stolen bases.
On the bump, Walker had a lot of help, particularly from Logan Carlson (7-0, 1.63 ERA), who allowed just 38 hits in 52 innings pitched. Derek Wall, who took the ball and delivered in the state title game, was 5-0 with a 2.73 ERA.
It was a wire-to-wire performance that caught attention beyond state borders, considering Pleasant Grove was ranked nationally for much of the season before finishing in that No. 5 position in the USA Today rankings. Coach Henry, however, was much more into that other ranking, No. 1, that came with winning the state tournament.
“It’s an honor for the program (national ranking), 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,” Darrin Henry said during an interview late in the regular season. “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.”
The results are impossible to ignore, and thus our selection of Pleasant Grove High baseball as the Preps Utah boys team of the year.