Story and photos by Kurt Johnson
Picking the top anything of the year is never an easy proposition, and as we complete our third list of top Utah high school sports stories of the year for Preps Utah, we found that this list is no exception.
For the 2013-2014 school year, we released our Top 20 stories of the year, but this year, we have expanded our list to 25 stories, some of which combine multiple events that share common themes. Since the goal is not to be exactly right, as anything of this nature is entirely subjective, but to recognize as many of the great accomplishments of the student athletes across the state as we can, we hope you will understand.
Beginning July 13 and continuing for the next three weeks, we will release one or two items on our list per day, beginning with No. 25 and working our way up to story No. 1. Today, we announce No. 12.
#12 – PG Power
It’s hard enough to win a championship in general, harder still when you spend the season with a target on your back. After its runner-up finish at the 2014 Class 5A state baseball championships, Pleasant Grove returned the core of its talent to take another run in 2015 and that made the Vikings the favorite from the outset.
After winning all five of its non-region contests to open the season, Pleasant Grove was at rival and fellow Region 4 powerhouse American Fork to open the league season and the game did not go like anyone on the Vikings had expected. Just 10 days earlier, Pleasant Grove scored six first-inning runs in a 10-6 win over the Cavemen in the championship game of a St. George tournament.
This time around, with ace Easton Walker on the hill for the Vikings, it was American Fork that was the unstoppable force on offense. The Cavemen banged hit after hit after hit as they built an 11-3 advantage through four innings, but that was just an invitation for the “champion” in Pleasant Grove to make an early appearance.
With Ben Eldredge coming out of the bullpen to stop the bleeding, the Vikings scored two in the fifth and six in the sixth to tie the game and then junior catcher ripped a go-ahead double in the top of the seventh before coming on to close out the win with his high-80s fastball. It was the first huge test for a team that spent most of the season nationally ranked, and it set the stage for a special season.
Pleasant Grove finished the season 27-3 and played a lot of games with a lead, but that region-opening win was proof positive that the Vikings would win however they needed to win. By the time the season was over, and coach Darrin Henry and company were collecting the hardware, there was no doubt that was 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Pleasant Grove got a lot of national attention and finished No. 5 in the USA Today rankings, with a long list of individual accolades. It was the first state baseball championship for the Vikings since 1998, and the end of that long streak in No. 12 on our Preps Utah Top 25 stories of the year.
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