LAKEWOOD | Colton Gray delayed the inevitable, but the Cherokee Trail senior outfielder’s final at-bat of Saturday’s Class 5A state championship game epitomized the never-say-die Cougars.
With Valor Christian’s faithful standing outside the backstop at All-Star Park anticipating victory, Gray fouled off pitch after pitch until he finally took a called third strike that sealed a 4-0 loss that ended Cherokee Trail’s magical postseason run.
The 25th-seeded Cougars won two dramatically different, but gritty contests Friday against Regis Jesuit and Rock Canyon to give themselves a chance, but the 15th-seeded Eagles — who knew they would have to beaten twice on the day — got the breaks and big hits needed to win a contest between two teams not likely expected to be there.
“Our kids were still fighting, that’s all you can ask,” said Cherokee Trail coach Jon DiGiorgio, whose team finished 18-13 overall. “We were playing on the last day of the season and only two teams get to do that, so that makes this special.”
The Cougars felt good about their pitching depth and junior Keegan Eberly — who provided a quality start in an elimination game against Chaparral on the opening weekend of the tournament — got the task of going against an offense from Valor Christian (20-8) that averaged 11-plus runs in its first three games of the tournament.
Eberly was aware his team needed to save any other arms it had for a potential second game, so he did his best against a difficult challenge.
He largely limited the Eagles save for single-run rallies in the second and third innings, plus a two-run fourth inning.
“I didn’t know anyone personally (in their lineup), but I was just worried when I would throw a good pitch and they would just throw their bat out and get it. I was like ‘Man, how do I get these guys out?’ I think I did a pretty good job overall.”
The timely hits that came the previous day — senior Charlie Boyd’s home run that decided the Regis Jesuit game and tying and go-ahead hits by junior Braeden Reichert, senior Tommy Munch and junior Johnny Robledo against Rock Canyon — weren’t there this time against Valor Christian senior starter Hunter Smith.
The Cougars tried to start fast, as two of their four singles in the game came in the top of the first inning when senior Bowen Tabola and Munch had hits, but a called third strike to Reichert and a fielder’s choice off Boyd’s bat ended the threat.
Trailing just 1-0, they loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the third inning as sophomore Akoi Burton singled, and Munch and Reichert reached on infield errors, but Boyd’s liner ended up in the glove of Valor Christian first baseman Keegan Waters, who was positioned perfectly.
“We left a lot of guys on and hit the ball in play a couple of times and it just happened to be right at a guy,” Boyd said. “Then they had a couple of bloop hits. Both pitchers were dealing and throwing great, they just happened to get some to fall and we didn’t, that’s just how baseball is.”
Added DiGiorgio: “This tournament is a grind, especially after we went long yesterday. No excuses, we just didn’t hit as good as we should and that’s the moral of the story for this one.”
Valor Christian’s two-run rally in the fourth — which included a run scoring even when Boyd made a diving stop to keep a ball on the infield — made the deficit even larger.
Travis Cruz — a longtime assistant in his first season as Valor Christian’s head coach — recognized Cherokee Trail’s heart, even down to Gray’s drawn-out at-bat (which came with Robledo at first base after a single).
“I love it, how could you not love the game of baseball and know that everybody on this field is giving their all?,” Cruz said. “CT did all they could. It wasn’t like they were missing barrels, they just happened to hit them right at our boys. We just got a little bit luckier in that the way the game fell. …It was great to watch them and share a field with them.”
In the end, the two teams that played for the state championship had a combined 21 losses on the season — 13 for Cherokee Trail and eight for Valor Christian, which opened the season 4-8 at one point — and both proved a lot with their postseason performances.
“I’m just proud of how far we fought and how far we went,” Tabola said. “Nobody in the state of Colorado thought we were going to end up getting this far and so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at email@example.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports
2023 CLASS 5A STATE BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
June 3 at All-Star Park
(15) VALOR CHRISTIAN 4, (25) CHEROKEE TRAIL 0
Score by innings (r-h-e):
Cherokee Trail 000 000 0 — 0 4 1
Valor Christian 011 200 x — 4 9 2
CHEROKEE TRAIL (ab-r-h-e)
Akoi Burton lf 3-0-1-0, Bowen Tabola c 3-0-1-0, Tommy Munch 3-0-1-0, Braedan Reichert ss 3-0-0-0, Charlie Boyd 2b 3-0-0-0, Brody Ceyrolles 3b 3-0-0-0, Zach Garcia dh 3-0-0-0, Johnny Robledo cf 3-0-1-0, Colton Gray rf 3-0-0-0. Totals 27-0-4-0. Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so): Keegan Eberly (L, 6-9-4-4-4-7).
VALOR CHRISTIAN (ab-r-h-e)
Ethan Carlson lf 4-0-0-0, Athan Kroll cf 3-1-2-1, Cashel Dugger c 3-0-2-1, Carson Tinney 2-0-0-0, Gavin Hunt rf 2-0-0-0, Keegan Waters 1b 3-0-0-0, Steven Lukasiewicz 3-2-3-0, Aidan Tocchini dh 2-0-0-0, Ian Kersten ph 1-0-0-0, Parker Feagans ss 2-1-2-1, Cole Tankersley pr 0-0-0-0. Totals 25-4-9-4. Pitching (ip-h-r-er-bb-so): Hunter Smith (W, 6 2/3-4-0-0-0-4), Zachary Eigenbrod (1/3-0-0-0-0-1)
2B — Valor Christian: Steven Lukasiewicz. 3B — Valor Christian: Athan Kroll