Amid high heat, higher pressure, Moffat County baseball ends playoff drive
For the Craig Press
DENVER – In the early afternoon, Moffat County High School baseball players were celebrating a 10-5 playoff win, but little did they know they’d be on the other side of the exact same score a few hours later.
MCHS went 1-1 Monday to complete the Bulldogs’ postseason run and end the spring 15-3 overall with a win over Berthoud and a loss to Colorado Academy in the regional round of the 3A state playoffs.
MoCo was seeded ninth overall in the tournament despite a 3A Western Slope League title, as RPI standings denied them a bye round and hosting duties afforded the top eight schools.
The quick turnaround a day after brackets were released by Colorado High School Activities Association was something Bulldog coaches expected, as was the long bus ride to the Front Range.
However, an unpleasant surprise awaited them when they learned players’ cleats would not be permitted on Colorado Academy’s artificial turf.
After a quick errand to get the full roster a new set of approved footwear, the Bulldogs were ready to play ball.
This is not Sparta
As the ninth seed in the opening round of the playoffs, Moffat County faced off first against the bottom of the brackets, No. 24 Berthoud.
The Spartans, members of the 3A/4A Longs Peak League, were eager to prove they belonged, and racked up two runs right off the bat against a MoCo defense that was still getting in gear.
Though the Bulldogs had their chances to get on the scoreboard here and there, it wasn’t until the bottom of the fourth inning that they started to show their trademark spirit, down 5-0.
A shot to center field by senior Krece Papierski brought home junior Derrick Squires and put Pap on second base with the double, though the Dogs’ biggest slugger this season noted that he was hoping to clear Colorado Academy’s back fence, notably farther back than the Bulldogs’ field.
“That would have been a bomb anywhere else we’ve played,” Papierski said.
Papierski crossed the plate moments later thanks to a hit by junior Ryan Peck, who was tagged out at second. Shortly after, junior Carson Miller made it home, though the short-lived rally ended at 5-3 with Berthoud still in front.
Big belts by Berthoud midway through the game were handled with ease by the Bulldog outfield of Daniel Running, Squires, and Tanner Etzler, and while Peck started the day pitching, he was relieved by senior Hunter Smilanich to shuffle around the infield.
Sophomore Easton Eckroth replaced Smilanich at first base, moving from the opposite corner of the field.
“I haven’t played third much this year, but I’m getting comfortable at first,” Eckroth said.
Eckroth earned a sacrifice fly in the fifth inning that sent Squires home successfully, following Smilanich on the basepaths, a move that tied up the game at 5-all.
“We just needed to get the bats off our shoulders and get going,” Eckroth said of the late offensive drive.
It was the sixth inning that proved Moffat County’s capabilities, partly due to Spartan pitching losing steam as Cort Murphy and Smilanich scored runs on the strength of a moment of hesitation and subsequent error by the Berthoud infield that allowed Squires to stand at first base with two unexpected RBIs.
Papierski and Peck also made it home, as the Dogs doubled their scoreboard total to head into the seventh.
The game closed on a simple grounder to Smilanich, who whipped it to Eckroth to close it.
“I was pumped, but I knew there was still work to be done,” Smilanich said of the initial win. “We still had to keep the same approach at the plate.”
With a half-hour break between rounds, MCHS players weren’t feeling too worn out, though their hosting opponents were daisy-fresh. Colorado Academy took over the their home dugout as Bulldogs moved their gear across the diamond to the visitors’ quarters.
The No. 8 Mustangs finished the regular season 11-4 and third in the 3A Metro League, but their schedule was deemed tougher than the Dogs’ to give them home field advantage.
Even so, Bulldogs drew first blood in the match-up as lead-off man Smilanich’s move to steal third base resulted in a bad throw by Colorado Academy that allowed the Moffat County senior to charge all the way to the plate.
However, the MoCo reverie didn’t last long. By the second inning, the Mustangs were in the lead as they drove in two runs thanks to well-placed hits that flummoxed the Bulldog outfield and forced them to adapt to batters who weren’t trying to send it as deep as possible.
Still, MCHS tied it back up in the third as Papierski knocked a grounder down the third-baseline to let Murphy round the hot corner and score.
By the fourth inning, Squires, the Dogs’ most productive pitcher this season, was struggling, and the scoreboard was showing it at 7-2 when Bulldog coaches called in Running from center field.
Squires claimed he wasn’t exactly weary from the first game, but with the heat of the day only getting worse, he had to battle mentally to keep himself going.
“Even if you are a little tired or fatigued on the bump, it’s in the back of your mind and you don’t think about it,” Squires said. “Maybe it was one of those days where not a whole lot was falling, but we managed to stay in it through the fourth. We had a good fight.”
The Mustangs added one more run before the Dogs closed the inning, but the boys in black and blue were right back in the field after that, with Colorado Academy promptly adding their last two runs.
Eckroth came onto the mound to end the fifth inning and caught a break as a double play ended the team’s defensive woes.
The sixth inning was again the Bulldogs’ time to shine, as Eckroth earned another sacrifice fly to let Papierski score; a line drive by Running brought in Peck; and Greg Spears grounded out to let Carson Miller get the last run of the day.
Though the Dogs attempted one more rally in the seventh, a ball in play by Eckroth went straight to second base for the force out to end it entirely.
There were some tears from players and coaches alike as they realized the season was done, but it wasn’t without plentiful pride at a particularly noteworthy season.
For Papierski, it was frustrating to not add yet another home run to the seven he’s hit this spring, the team’s hammer to celebrate the feat remaining motionless Monday. Part of that was both teams knowing he’d be the biggest threat and either handing him intentional walks or bean balls when they could.
“That’s just how it goes sometimes,” Papierski said. “I wanted to do everything I could to help my team win, and they did everything they could to take me out of it.”
With excellent statistics headed into college ball, Smilanich and Papierski could hardly say it wasn’t a great year, even ending on a sad note.
“It’s definitely a bummer, but at the end of the day it was more than anybody ever expected us to do,” Papierski said. “Winning the league was really cool for us, and I think no matter what, the season was a pretty big success. There’s some good years to come for baseball in Craig.”
Between the seeding, the adjustment to the field, the travel, the heat, and every other odd factor of the season, head coach Brian Jennings could only say positive things of his players.
“They fought all year and really showed up,” he said. “It’s been a wild few weeks to say the least. Great teams come back from adversity, and they’ve done that time and time again.”
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