‘You couldn’t write it any better,’ Riverton baseball captures historic state titleJun 21, 2022 01:49PM ● By Travis Barton
The Riverton baseball team dog piles after winning the state championship at UCCU Ball park in Orem. (Photo by Pat McDonald)
By Travis Barton | [email protected]
Partway through Riverton’s historic boys baseball season, the team gathered to hear an object lesson from their coaches and a sports psychologist.
The squad had to put a puzzle together that, once completed, spelled out 6A state champions.
The message was simple: everybody contributes no matter how large or small your piece of the puzzle may be because everyone is necessary to complete the picture, whether you’re hitting home runs or getting water in the dugout.
“It was awesome,” senior captain Parker Goff recalled. “It was very accurate to what it's actually like to play a team sport.”
Various puzzle pieces came together to create not just this team, but a memorable season for the Silverwolves. One that ended with the program’s first ever state championship.
“All the adversity we faced and then to still do what we did,” Goff said. “It was awesome to be part of this team, I couldn't be more thankful for these guys.”
Lead off: Injuries
Entering the year players and coaches knew they had a potentially special season on their hands. Head coach Jay Applegate described the team as “probably one of the deepest and most talented teams” he’s had.
Senior captain Sam Beck said they had a “special feeling that this was our year.”
But then adversity hit. Again and again.
The first wrench in the plan came last summer when Beck hurt his elbow pitching at a prospect camp in August. On the day he hit 90 mph for the first time, but he hurt his arm in the process leading him to need full Tommy John surgery in October.
October also saw their starting leftfielder from a year ago, senior Josh Jacobson, tear his ACL during the last football game of the year. “That was devastating for all of us,” Beck said.
Beck, who is committed to BYU and is maybe the best pitcher on the staff, was told he’d only be able to hit for the season. “I was like, ‘you gotta be freaking kidding me,’” he said.
So the senior immersed himself in physical therapy and with each passing checkup, his timeline advanced. He could play infield by playoffs, then could play by the middle of the season. Then, a week before the season started, he was cleared to play. Beck couldn’t pitch, but he could play infield. By the final week of the season, Beck said his arm was “the best it’s ever felt.”
No example might be better than Game 2 in the championship series when he was at shortstop and fielded a grounder moving to his right, away from first base, and on the run, threw out the runner at first.
“He worked his butt off in rehab,” Applegate said. “Doctors were amazed and he was obviously a vital piece of the puzzle for us.”
But injuries kept coming, which included another Tommy John surgery and two fractured shoulders, one of whom was perhaps the other best pitcher on staff, Zach Edwards. The sophomore, known as “Eddie,” hurt his throwing shoulder on the last game of preseason against American Fork. He missed all of region and was only able to hit in the playoffs, meaning Riverton played all of region without its two best pitchers.
Beck himself had to overcome another injury just a week before the playoffs. In a unique accident, he fell on a chair with the leg puncturing his stomach. He had to stay in the hospital overnight for observation where the doctors told him it missed his colon by millimeters.
Injuries weren’t limited to just the players either. Applegate, whose had three knee replacements in his left leg, broke his femur in the same leg during tryouts week at the beginning of March. “It didn’t break the skin, but it was sticking out,” he said.
Applegate couldn’t put any weight on his leg for six weeks, he was able to watch games from a wheelchair in the gallery but couldn’t return to the dugout until the middle of April.
The players and remaining coaches, spearheaded by assistant Curtis Wilson, adopted a saying that brought the group closer: Play for Jay. They made posters in honor of Applegate, placing them in the dugout until he returned.
“That was pretty touching to me,” Applegate said.
Most teams say next man up, but Riverton had to live it.
“Just all year we had dudes step up constantly whether it was coaches or players and doing what they had to do to get the job done,” Goff said.
It proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Silverwolves.
“We felt that if we could get some of the young guys some experience early on, it’s going to pay dividends at the end of the year,” Applegate said.
That proved prophetic as sophomores Dylan Zullo, Carson Moody, Cooper Hansen and Kaden Allred were among the underclassmen with clutch moments in the postseason.
On deck: Chemistry
While they had the talent to overcome injuries here and there, Goff said it was their relationship as a team that allowed them to execute the next man up philosophy.
“Sharing the field with your best friends makes it easy to relax and enjoy the moment,” he said. “So just our overall team bond had a huge effect in how people stepped up, along with how talented we were.”
Applegate said it helped having seniors who were “some of the best character kids around.”
“They’re close, they’re playing for each other, they love the game,” Applegate said. “The chemistry of a team plays a huge role in the success of the team.”
The team set a goal of five positive affirmations a day where you give someone a high-five or tell them they did a great job. The daily goal wove the positivity into the fabric of their season.
“That helped us a lot too because it was such a good environment on and off the field,” Goff said.
Off the field was where the team chemistry was forged. It may have started in the weight room where the team did 5:30 a.m. workouts during the winter. Guys grew stronger individually, collectively, and Goff added the challenges showed them their potential.
“I think that opened our eyes to how good we can be and what we can push through,” he said. “That program was hard, and now we know we can do hard things and get through hard stuff as long as we stay together.”
Groups were often mixed to allow different bonds to form and attendance was constant whether a player was injured or not.
“Every single person was there every single morning,” Beck said.
Whether it was going out to eat together, playing video games in the clubhouse, or traveling to a St. George tournament where they ate pies and swapped scary stories in the hot tub, they were all just “best friends.
“All year I feel like our team chemistry was just unmatched,” Beck said.
Though Beck and Goff were the only designated captains, both said the nine seniors were crucial in leading the team including Jacobson, Owen Olsen, Braden Nelson, Kaden Miller, Mitch Applegate, Mack Bright and Tyler Barton.
“Kaden Miller was one of those dudes that's a natural leader and he's super vocal so he's good at talking to the team, knows exactly what to say,” Goff said. “The whole senior class is a bunch of good leaders that are going to do great things.”
In the hole: Accepting your role
One aspect that perhaps impressed Applegate the most about this year’s squad was its focus on the bigger picture. Using the puzzle as an analogy drove home the point with players, but constantly reminding them that each player has a role to fill whether they play or not was instrumental.
Goff said even upperclassmen who weren’t playing would not only cheer their teammates but also looked for tips to share during games with those playing over them.
“It really came down to caring about each other and doing it for the guy next to you, other than doing it for yourself,” he said.
Applegate’s son Mitch was the starting second baseman this season, who finished with a 96% fielding percentage and recorded 12 assists in the championship series. But when Edwards returned from his injury, Applegate decided to take his son out of the batting lineup and replace him with the sophomore. Mitch hits singles, but Edwards could get them “doubles, triples, home runs.”
Mitch’s response: “I don’t care as long as we win.”
“The whole senior group is willing to do anything to win,” the head coach said. “It’s a hallmark of this team, they don’t care who gets the credit. They’re willing to do anything to win that state title. I was just so proud of him.”
Applegate added it was a “testament to how these kids were raised.”
“Parents were phenomenal this year, some players sit and then there’s anger, but everyone had their eye to the big goal,” he said.
Hitting cleanup: It all comes together
Between the selflessness, the talent, the chemistry and now experience up and down the roster, the Silverwolves put together a special year.
The team went 7-2 in preseason stringing together some impressive wins. Then went 11-4 in Region 3, hovering around the top seed for the playoffs, but finished 1-2 against Bingham in the series finale to finish runner up in region.
After beating its region rival 6-0 in Game 1, Riverton dropped the second game in extras 5-3, before a wild Game 3 saw the teams combine for 30 runs and 17-13 win for the Miners.
But the team chose to “focus on the bigger trophy.”
“It was good to have a little adversity before we got to the playoffs,” Beck said. “Just so we're not tearing it up all year and not be ready to then get upset in the playoffs.”
That upset still almost came in the super regional.
The three-game series against Layton saw Riverton smoke the first game winning 13-3. But Layton responded with a 6-3 win the next day, followed by an early 5-1 lead in Game 3.
The Silverwolves battled back to a 7-6 deficit. They were down to their last strike when they knocked in the tying run.
“It was like we got revived, so much life came back into us,” Goff said. “Once we got that hit to tie it, we weren't going to lose that game.”
They walked it off the very next inning.
“That whole game we were like we just need to focus on our roles and whatever happens, happens,” Beck said.
Goff said they viewed everything after that game as “a gift.”
“We felt like we gotta treat everything like a gift, that's what pushed us into the state tournament and why we played so well,” he said.
Riverton then threw three straight complete games to defeat Taylorsville, Bingham and Pleasant Grove from Braden Nelson, Cooper Hansen and Remington Robins.
“Robins stepped up big time as our day three starter,” Applegate said. “He had a heck of a game against PG in the state tournament, best I’ve ever seen him throw. When those kids got on the big stage they were ready, they did a great job.”
Applegate’s players were ready in part due to his preparation. Beck noted the coaching staff started giving them scouting reports during region that were spot on, putting them in “perfect positions” defensively.
The Silverwolves arrived to the championship series against defending state champs American Fork (who also won the 2020 Covid-inspired Last Chance Tournament defeating Riverton in the championship game).
A tight game saw Riverton load the bases down 3-2 in the bottom of the seventh, but were unable to capitalize. Riverton had a runner controversially called out at home on a squeeze bunt that would have tied the game.
Pretty much everyone associated with Riverton thought the runner was safe and Beck admitted they were upset on the bus ride home that night, but collectively decided to control what they could.
Applegate said it was a great life lesson for the kids, perhaps prepared by the adversity faced all season long, to “reset when things happen to you and just keep moving forward.”
Reset might undersell what happened the next day.
Sparked by an eight-run second inning to change the momentum, the Silverwolves cruised to an 18-8 victory in Game 2 highlighted by Kaden Miller’s five-hit, seven-RBI game.
Of those 18 runs, 17 were scored with two outs. “Everyone was hitting, everyone was executing. There were just so many little things in that game that helped out,” Beck said.
“I think we really saw the true, true potential of our team,” Goff said.
Riverton kept the momentum rolling as they took a commanding 6-0 lead in Game 3 featuring a grand slam from Edwards and a triple-play by Beck.
“To see both of those caliber of plays in one game was absolutely unreal,” Goff said. “To actually see a triple play in real life…Once that happened, I was like ‘we're not losing this game.’”
The Silverwolves held off American Fork to win 8-3, capturing its first state title in program history, setting off a delirium of celebrations.
“It was freaking awesome,” Beck said.
For Goff, it was incredible to “see everything come together.”
“It's hard to describe what an amazing feeling it was be on the field with all my buddies playing our best baseball in the state championship series against a really good AF team, it was just crazy.”
The team was treated to a police escort on the way back to the school where a pizza party was thrown in its honor.
For Applegate, who is the only head coach Riverton baseball has ever known, who came close in the 2018 championship series, he’s “just grateful to be a part of it.”
“With AF being so good and dominant, to lose the first one and win the next two, you couldn’t write it any better,” he said.
It is perhaps made more special that baseball capped a successful year for Riverton athletics, with girls soccer and softball also capturing state titles. “That is freaking cool,” Applegate said.
Even a week later, Beck said winning still “felt like a freaking dream.”
A sense of gratitude was settling in for Goff.
“I’m thankful to be a part of such an amazing group of dudes that would do anything for me and I'd do anything for them,” he said. “No other team, school, program I'd rather be a part of than Riverton. I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity to make history with such a great group of dudes.”
The Riverton High baseball team won the 6A state championship, its first in program history. (Photo by Pat McDonald)
Senior Owen Olsen raises the trophy to the crowd after the Silverwolves defeated American Fork twice in one day to win the state championship. (Photo by Pat McDonald)
The team celebrates Sam Beck's triple play during the clinching championship game. (Photo by Pat McDonald)
After some injuries to other pitchers, junior Remington Robins became the day three starter as part of Riverton's potent pitching staff. (Photo by Pat McDonald)