Chuck Steele couldn’t sleep.
Steele is one of 10 seniors on the Salem Hills baseball team who graduated last week and figured his high school days were behind him. Then Steele and his teammates found out late last week that the Last Chance Tournament was a reality and the excitement started building.
“It’s awesome,” Steele said. “We found out last week we’d be playing and it’s been exciting ever since. It was really hard to sleep. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. The door was shut, but now it’s open.”
Thursday was the hottest day of the year so far — temps in the high 80s — but a perfect day for baseball as Salem Hills opened the tournament with a 7-0 victory against Springville.
Skyhawks senior Cooper Loveridge pitched five shutout innings and fellow senior Jarret Elmer added two strong innings in relief.
“Cooper did an excellent job,” Salem Hills coach Scott Haney said. “He threw strikes. He got into several full counts early then struck them out or got ground balls. He threw hard when he needed to and got some soft contact when he needed to.”
Haney — who has posted a series of videos on social media about baseball and other life topics during the COVID-19 shutdown — knew exactly how many days he and his players had been apart.
“I made another video two days ago when we started practicing,” Haney said. “I told them it had been 72 days we’d been off our baseball field and now we were finally together. They all cheered behind me.”
Salem Hills put two runs on the board in the third inning with RBI doubles from Kyle Coburn and Chase Higginson then got two more when junior Stone Cushing launched a deep home run to right field for a 4-0 lead in the fourth. Elmer added an RBI single in a three-run sixth for the final margin.
The details of the game weren’t as important as the teams getting together to play again after such a long layoff.
Haney said nine of his 10 seniors came to play on Thursday. The one who didn’t — Corbin Hoover — has a construction job and couldn’t get off work.
“Some of the younger kids are playing Legion ball and told them they could come if they want to support our seniors,” Haney said. “Everyone chose to come play except for one kid who is on vacation with his family.”
One of his players — No. 9 hitter Westlee Jones — has diabetes and Haney checked with Jones’ father to see if he was absolutely certain he wanted his son to come play.
“He said, ‘Heck, yeah,’” Haney said. “He wouldn’t miss it.”
A good crowd of around 80-90 fans showed up, mostly spreading out on either foul line with lawn chairs and umbrellas. The agreement with the Alpine and Nebo school districts to rent the fields included following all COVID-19 directives from the state and the Utah County Health Department.
Higginson’s father, Danny, was one of the parents who helped make a strong push for the tournament to take place.
“When they (the UHSAA) shut us down the first time, I was pretty skeptical and down about everything,” Chase Higginson said. “As hard as my dad fought to make this happen, it just gave me hope. It gave my teammates hope. We were a little rusty so we knew we had to get going, get some hitting in and play catch. We started setting up team-run practices. We were finally able to get out of the house and start playing again.”
Salem Hills is playing in the Class 5A portion of the tournament, which includes pool play on Thursday, today and Saturday. The Class 6A portion begins pool play today. Bracket play begins Tuesday. Many of the games are being streamed on http://live.ksl.com.