Prep baseball: Pleasant Grove off to perfect start
Pleasant Grove coach Darrin Henry calls Region 4 the SEC of Utah high school baseball, and for good reason.
There's Bingham, nationally ranked at the start of the season. There's American Fork, the defending Class 5A state champ. There's Riverton, with its history of dominant pitching.
That region gauntlet is what Pleasant Grove has been preparing for since November. The Vikings have made a concerted effort to push themselves harder, make themselves tougher, so that when the beasts of Region 4 pop up on the schedule, it won't seem that tough.
So far, so good. Though region play is still two weeks away, Pleasant Grove is thriving in one-run games, coming through when the pressure is highest. The Vikings enter the week 5-0 the only Class 5A team without a loss and beat previously unbeaten Alta last week.
"We've been working our butts off for a long time," sophomore Easton Walker said. "But we're also focusing on having fun. We're relaxing a little bit more. We seem to play a lot better when we are having fun and do what we do."
The Vikings jumped out to similar success at the start of the past two seasons. They went 9-1 to open the 2012 campaign, only to limp home 5-10 in region play and miss the postseason.
So the stakes were raised in the winter to toughen up the young squad. Every Friday, the team races up to the "G" on Little Mountain, east of the city. The players have learned to embrace pressure, to thrive in the clutch.
"We've worked on that all winter," said Henry, in his third season with the Vikings. "We've talked about embracing the pressure and embracing the situation that you're put in. Pressure time is a clutch time for us. It's a whole mental game we're playing. Hopefully it will work."
Walker has been a big part of the early success. On the mound, the staff ace struck out 11 of 15 batters he faced in a season-opening victory against Copper Hills, then fanned eight against rival Timpanogos. At the plate, the shortstop hit his first two career home runs in the 7-6 triumph against Alta.
"We've done a lot more weight lifting this year," said Walker, who has five extra-base hits this season. "I've gotten at least three times as strong. In that game, I saw good pitches and put good swings on them and good things happened."
Junior right fielder T.J. Wind, a state wrestling champ, has four extra-base hits. The Vikings have seven seniors on the roster, four of whom play regularly. Senior Lewis McKay is hitting .417 entering the week and is 1-0 as the Vikings' No. 2 starter.
Pitching depth has carried the Vikings, who have three wins in one-run games. Brandon Coombs allowed just one hit over six innings of relief against Alta.
"Our pitching is surprisingly deep this year," Henry said. "We've concentrated on that all winter. We're really getting deep and strong with our youth."
It's work they hope will pay off with wins in April and May, when the region powers come calling.
"We know how tough the region is," Henry said. "We made a goal of doing hard things. Overcoming hard things is kind of our motto this year. We know how it is to be good early. We want to be good late."
Pleasant Grove (5-0) enters the week as the only unbeaten team in Class 5A and one of only two teams without a loss after five games in the state. Beaver is the other.
Sophomore pitcher/shortstop Easton Walker is 2-0 with 19 strikeouts on the mound. He also has two of the team's five home runs.
The Vikings are young, but seniors Lewis McKay (.417 average) and Bryce Jones (two doubles) have helped power the offense.