After a 12-6 loss to Salem Hills on April 17, the Spanish Fork baseball team found itself with an 8-9 record, including losing seven of its last eight games.
The Dons responded to that adversity by winning 14 of their next 15 contests. That put them with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three 5A Championship Series against crosstown rival Maple Mountain heading into the final day of action on Saturday at Cate Field in West Jordan.
It wasn’t going to be smooth sailing for Spanish Fork, however, as the Golden Eagles rocked the Dons for 16 hits in a 10-5 Maple Mountain win in Game 2.
That forced a winner-take-all Game 3 on Saturday afternoon with the Golden Eagles coming in with a lot of momentum.
Spanish Fork, however, had a key advantage: Don junior Zac Dart was going to be on the mound.
“It’s really nice when you’ve got your best arm throwing in the last game,” Spanish Fork head coach Casey Nelson said. “He wasn’t 100% but he frickin’ gutted it out for six innings. I thought he was probably done about the fourth but he said he found his second wind.”
Dart kept the potent Maple Mountain batters off-balance long enough for the Dons to build a big lead as Spanish Fork cruised to the 14-3 victory and the eight baseball title in school history.
Dart said he relished the challenge of having all the pressure in Game 3.
“I love that kind of stuff,” Dart said. “That’s what I want. My whole life I’ve dreamed about being starting pitcher in the state championship game, so when I got that opportunity, there were nerves sure but it was just excitement. I wanted to go and I love that the coaches have confidence in me. Maple Mountain is a great team and they compete, but I was ready to go out and compete too.”
Don senior pitcher Blair Nielson (who came in to get the final outs in the seventh inning) said the whole team played better because they believed Dart was up to the challenge.
“We knew they had the momentum going into the second game today, but also we had Zac Dart ready to go,” Nielson said. “He’s a BYU commit and he is just so calm on the mound. You know he’s going to go out there and perform when you need him to. There is no doubt when he goes out there that he’s going to dominate.”
That combined with consistent, powerful hitting — Spanish Fork had 19 total hits, including 10 for extra bases — proved to be too much for Maple Mountain to overcome.
“It kind of got away from us and kudos to them,” Golden Eagle head coach Gary Miner said. “They hit the crap out of the ball in that in that game. We had pitching but they did great.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Maple Mountain, who had a great run in the tournament and reached the last day but ended up on the wrong end of a lopsided finale.
“I said to my team after the game that although we feel absolutely horrible, the alternative is not being here,” Miner said. “We could’ve just gotten down after the first one and said we can’t beat those guys. But the alternative is never better than the opportunity to be a part of something and to build the relationships and to go through difficult times and good times. That’s what sports is, which is a lot more than just wins and losses.”
On the other side of the diamond, the Dons got to enjoy the jubilation of winning the state championship.
“It doesn’t seem real,” Nielson said. “It’s like something you dream about. I can’t even believe it happened. When we were dogpiling, I kind of woke up again and I was like, wait a minute, that just happened. I saw Westin (Corless) catch the ball and I threw my glove in the air, then after that I blacked out. I woke up in the dogpile and couldn’t breathe. Then it kind of hit me that we just took state. It’s unbelievable.”
Nelson said the team starts the season by practicing the dogpile, just in case they need to do it at the end of the year.
“We pretend like we won the state championship,” Nelson said. “I get nine guys out there, get an umpire to call strike three and then we dogpile on the mound. It doesn’t come to fruition all the time but it did right there.”
Dart said it was important that Spanish Fork never stopped believing in what it could accomplish.
“We had our ups and downs, and mentally we were down after we had a bad start to region,” Dart said. “But at the same time we had our team motto, ‘why not us?’ from the 2004 Boston Red Sox. That’s how it was all time. We lost our first game in the tournament but it was just why not us because we knew what we had to do was to compete and we love each other, so let’s roll.”
He said he couldn’t be more pleased with how his guys responded to every challenge until the end.
“I just told the guys to hit the reset button (after the loss),” Nelson said. “That’s kind of wha t we’ve been doing since about the first of April. I’m proud of them and I can’t be more excited for the Spanish Fork High School community.”