When he walked away from the team’s postgame gathering in right field, having told his Emery High School baseball players to stay there and solve their problems, coach Steven Gordon could not have seen this coming.
There’s a story behind every state championship, and this is Emery’s: How a team with six sophomores and one senior in the lineup, led by a coach/assistant principal who once banked in a half-court shot to win a state basketball title for the Spartans, saved its season and celebrated another championship in a county that experienced another mining tragedy this spring.
“The whole community is just very attached and supportive of what goes on at Emery High School,” said county commissioner JR Nelson. “It’s kind of the only game in town.”
Emery’s following comes from a bunch of central Utah towns, such as Orangeville, Cleveland, Ferron and Huntington, with some of the 425 students traveling 20-plus miles to school in Castle Dale. Geography partly explains how EHS brings together the county’s 11,000 residents.
With tri-captains whose given names were inspired by a Louis L’Amour novel (Tappan Draper), a pro basketball star (Drexler Tanner) and a topographical feature (Ridge Nielson), the Spartans won the school’s first baseball title in 31 years. Having recently moved down to Class 2A helped, as Emery no longer faces the powerful baseball programs in the St. George area.
Yet the Spartans’ deep lineup, with a .354 batting average, makes Gordon believe, “This team I have right now could compete with them.”
Such ability became evident long ago. When the sophomores were 8 years old, current Emery assistant coach Dave Hreinson took Dillon Wilstead, Tyson Roper, Baylee Bolotas, Ethan Tuttle and Nielson to a statewide tournament (Tanner Lake joined them the next year). “We just rocked teams,” Hreinson said, remembering how some observers questioned the players’ ages. “Dillon used to blow kids away at that age; they couldn’t hit him. Fundamental-wise, they were all really, really good. You’d just show them how it’s done, and they’d just do it.”
They’ve remained coachable, but the Spartans faced divisive issues this season. Four players were suspended for two games following a spring-break incident. And after an 8-5 loss to Richfield in mid-April, Gordon cited dissension that hovered over the team like the power-plant smokestacks that loom beyond left field in Castle Dale. He told the players to do whatever it took to fix things — and they did, staying in right field until umpires made them clear out so a junior varsity game could begin.
“I guess we’d had it with one another,” said Nielson, the team’s fiery shortstop. “I kind of called a couple people out, I guess.”
The players came together, and so did their championship season, topped by a 15-9 win over Parowan. Emery principal Larry Davis credits Gordon for turning around the team. “He knew what to say,” Davis said, “and he rallied those kids.”
Gordon seemingly always has the right touch. In 1989, he weaved through defenders and delivered a buzzer-beating, 45-foot shot to win the epic 2A title game featuring Emery’s Shawn Bradley and Richfield’s Ryan Cuff. The Spartans moved to 3A and won another championship the following season. As Emery’s girls’ basketball coach, Gordon took four teams in seven years to 3A title games, winning twice.
Emery County residents responded admirably to the Crandall Canyon mine collapse that killed nine workers and rescuers in 2007, followed by another mining death in March.
They also love to celebrate.
When the baseball team returned home, a big community event — a children’s dance recital — was being held in the school auditorium. The players walked across the stage to a standing ovation.
Monday, the players, coaches and their families were treated to a barbecue and Davis, a former newspaper editor, presented an elaborate slide show of the season. The captains thanked everyone for making the championship possible. “Mostly, the moms and the coaches,” Tanner said.
The players received personalized candy bars. State championship rings are coming.
With everyone except Draper returning, there’s talk of what more Emery can accomplish in the next two seasons. Ferd Allred, a star pitcher-shortstop for the 1982 championship team as a junior, remembers how subsequent complacency affected his Spartans. “I really thought we’d have one more [title], easy,” he said.
Naturally, Gordon said, “I’m worried to death about next year, already.”
Emery’s title game lineup
Player Pos Class
Ridge Nielson SS Soph.
Tappan Draper DH Sr.
Tyson Roper LF Soph.
Drexler Tanner C Jr.
Dillon Wilstead P-3B Soph.
Marco Mota RF Jr.
Gavin McDermott CF Jr.
Ethan Tuttle 2B Soph.
Tanner Lake 1B Soph.
Baylee Bolotas 3B-P Soph.
Emery’s state championships
Boys’ track • 1967, 1968, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1994
Girls’ track • 1979
Baseball • 1982, 2013
Boys’ basketball • 1989, 1990
Girls’ basketball • 2007, 2011
Football • 1987
Drill team • 1994
Volleyball • 1995