DENVER — Evergreen will play it in first ever state baseball championship next Saturday at Metro State University’s Regency Athletic Complex.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in for any of us yet,” Evergreen senior Ryker Eagen said after the Cougars rallied late to take a 7-5 victory over defending champion and Jeffco League rival Valor Christian in a game of the last two undefeated team in the double-elimination Class 4A state tournament.
Valor appeared to be zeroing on a 3-0 start and in good position to repeat as state champions. The Eagles (19-5 record) held a 5-1 lead going to the bottom of the sixth inning.
However, Evergreen (16-8) wasn’t prepared to concede the driver’s seat to Valor heading into the semifinals scheduled for Friday and Saturday, May 26 and 27, at Metro State.
“All year they have made comebacks. We have never quit,” Evergreen coach Steve Jones said. “We talk about playing a full 21 (outs). I tell them to grind. That’s what we did today.”
What the Cougars did in the sixth inning stunned everyone. Evergreen had a 6-run sixth inning to turn a 5-1 deficit into a 7-5 lead going to the seventh inning.
After an early out, Jack Patterson and Eagen managed back-to-back singles. A walk to Taylor Gray loaded the bases with one out. Mike Kapner’s flare to left field was misplayed to drive in a run. Valor lifted starting pitcher Ethan Zemla for junior Justin Estes.
Estes hit pinch-hitter Andrew Stephens to plate another run, cutting Valor’s lead to 5-3. Junior Jake Hefeli walked with the bases loaded to score another run.
“We played six great innings of baseball and had little one slip,” Valor coach Brian Bonn said.
With Valor clinging to a 1-run lead, Evergreen senior Ben Muscatello ripped a single to left center field to drive in a pair of runs and give the Cougars their first lead.
“I was basically just trying to get the ball out of the infield,” Muscatello said of his 2-run single that he admitted he was given the take sign on the pitch he hit. “I wanted to score that (tying) run and maybe do some more damage. Luckily I hit a line-drive.”
Junior Ethan Stiles hit a sacrifice fly to center field to score the final run in the remarkable comeback by the Cougars.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Muscatello said of the Cougars’ 6-run sixth inning. “(Valor) started throwing balls and we started capitalizing on their pitches they were leaving over the plate.”
With Evergreen’s top three pitchers — Muscatello, Jack Hudd and Eagen — already maxed out with pitch counts during the three-game stretch over two days, Jones called on sophomores Paul Schreffler and Brett Bokelman to pitch the final three innings.
Bokelman got a strikeout and groundout to start the seventh inning. Valor junior Austin Howell had a ball drop for a single in centerfield, but Bokelman got junior Noah Kuzman to fly out to right field to end the game and start the celebration for the Cougars.
“We call him Slim,” Muscatello said of Bokelman. “He has ice in his veins. That was the biggest performance I’ve seen coming in at that time and that situation against the defending state champions. Wow. I’m just happy he kept his cool.”
Valor isn’t panicking by any means. Valor, Air Academy and Thompson Valley are all in the same situation facing elimination Friday. However, the Eagles were able to win three elimination games last year during the final weekend of the tournament to win the 4A state title.
“It’s not over,” Bonn said. “Our job now is how to use this energy after a loss. We have to use that energy for the positive and preparation now, not on the past of losing one game. We are going to be in great shape.”
Valor defeated Evergreen during 4A Jeffco conference play 8-1 on April 10.
However, the Cougars came into Tuesday late afternoon game riding a six-game winning streak that included back-to-back shutout victories against Air Academy and Thompson Valley to start Evergreen’s run in the 4A state tournament.
“This is the most interesting season we’ve ever had,” Muscatello said. “We’ve dealt with adversity. We’ve stuck together as a team when times were tough. Who thought we would be here right now?”
Now, Evergreen is assured to be playing in the state championship game Saturday. Jones didn’t want to think to far ahead of how he will handle his pitchers with the ability to hold Muscatello for a title game Saturday.
“Ben is a big-game competitor. He is by far the most determined competitor I’ve ever coached,” Jones said of his ace. “I’m confident whoever we call to take the bump they are going to do fine.”
It’s been a bumpy ride for Evergreen at times. The Cougars actually finished tied for fourth in the 4A Jeffco League and was No. 28 in the RPI standings to grab a No. 4 seed for their district tournament.
“We are going to enjoy the next 24 hours. I’m going to let the kids be kids and we actually have a few still have to take finals,” Jones said. “Evergreen has never been this far in its entire history. I’m just incredibly proud of this group of young men.”