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. 11.
#11 – Softball Surprise
It’s hard to refer to a team winning its second straight state title as a “surprise,” but in the Lehi softball team’s return to the winner’s circle at the end of the 2015 season, there was a significant element of the unexpected.
The Pioneer squad that rolled through the 2014 state tournament without taking a loss graduated a few players, but a core group, led by junior pitcher/shortstop Sydney White was back to defend the title. The 2015 edition was certainly among the favorites from the outset, with one of the biggest changes being the arrival of first-year coach Tim Kennedy.
Whether it was the transition to a new coach or just the process of ramping up, Lehi got off to a little bit of a slow start this year before coming on strong down the stretch. So, why would we call their state championship a surprise?
When the Pioneers dropped a 6-5 game to a very good Copper Hills team in the third round of the state tournament, it put Lehi in a position it did not experience a year ago. The Pioneers needed to fight their way through a series of elimination games if they hoped to repeat as 5A state champions.
And it wasn’t just the need to win one-loss bracket that made the chances of another championship appear remote, it was the teams Lehi would have to go through on that path. A very good Davis team was up first, but that was followed by games against a Riverton team the Pioneers split a pair of regular-season games against and then that same Copper Hills team that sent them to the elimination bracket in the first place.
Now, the Grizzlies would be part of a murderer’s row of must-win games just to earn the chance to play for the title. Survive that, and what would be waiting in the championship round? That would be unbeaten Herriman, and Lehi would need to beat the Mustangs in back-to-back games.
Weather didn’t help much either, as the rainy championship week played with the tournament schedule in a big way, piling more games into fewer days. Those three games – Davis, Riverton and Copper Hills – all ended up being played on the same day.
With White battling through it all in the pitcher’s circle and the Pioneer bats coming to life in a display of amazing power, Lehi found the championship mettle that was there last season. It beat Davis in a close game, overpowered Riverton 9-0 and then survived a 9-8 rematch victory over Copper Hills to fight its way back to the championship round.
Coming back on that final Friday, part two of the challenge that made the title run for Lehi somewhat unlikely was readily apparent. Herriman was the regular-season champion of Region 4 and owned a pair of wins over the Pioneers.
If those had been one-run battles, it would be one thing, but they were not. The Mustangs knocked off Lehi 9-1 in the first contest between the two teams in 2015, and for good measure, they beat the Pioneers 12-1 in the return matchup.
Those were the odds staring down White and her Pioneer teammates, and they needed to beat Herriman twice. The problem for the Mustangs is that this was postseason Lehi, with a whole new attitude and a whole lot of confidence.
By the time the day was over, Lehi (28-9) had a pair of victories by identical 7-2 scores and a second straight trophy to place next to last year’s award.
White was a huge part of the story, as the pitcher in all five of those elimination game wins. Her teammates made her life easier, with a lot of help from White herself, as the Pioneer offense exploded in the latter stages of the state tournament.
This team that had scored two runs total in two games against the Mustangs during the season, hit six home runs in the two-game state championship set. Since the long ball was Herriman’s M.O. all year long, it was a fitting way for Lehi to send the message that it had raised its game to a new level.
A pair of juniors, catcher Brogan Kirby and third baseman Stefani Zimmerman, each knocked a pair out of the yard in the two games against the Mustangs, while White and junior outfielder Emme Cluff also chipped in with long balls. It was a strong follow-up to the previous day, when Lehi hit eight home runs in its three knock-out battles.
Herriman (26-6) had just nine hits combined against White in the two contests, a sure sign that the super-competitive pitcher had something to prove after the rough outings the first two times she saw this line-up. She certainly made a strong final statement.
The emergence of Kirby, who hit five of the team’s 14 home runs over the tournament’s final two days, is a great sign for Kennedy as he peeks ahead at the run for No. 3 straight a year from now. The team will see the Tahbo twins (Terra and Taylor) graduate, so there will be some talent to replace, but White, Zimmerman, Kirby, Cluff and shortstop/third baseman Rylin Roberts will all be back as seniors in 2016.
For now, Lehi can just sit back and enjoy being a two-time state champion. It entered the season as the favorite, then turned into a bit of an underdog before emerging as a champion, story No. 11 in our countdown.
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