When it comes to 1A high school baseball in the state of Utah, it seems like it just continues to be "Wayne's World" and everybody else is simply living in it.
With last year's 1A MVP, senior right-hander Randy Ellett, back on the mound throwing and going strong again, the defending state champion Wayne High Badgers again look like the team to beat for the title this year.
But there are at least three teams — Panguitch, Tabiona and West Ridge Academy — who have definitely set themselves apart from the rest of the pack a month into the 2011 season.
The Region 20 twosome of Wayne and Panguitch are accustomed to plenty of success on the diamond, and both teams are rolling along again thus far this year.
Wayne, which won last year's 1A state title, is currently 5-0 in league play and 11-4 overall, while Panguitch, which won the state championship in 2009, is 4-1 in Region 20 and 10-3 on the season.
Tabiona has risen to the top of the Region 18 race with a 6-0 league mark and a 9-1 season slate, with Tintic next in line at 4-0 and 6-3 entering a key league doubleheader between the two teams on Friday.
And West Ridge Academy certainly looks like the top team in Region 17, boasting a 3-0 region record to go along with a 7-3 overall mark — the only team in the league with a winning overall record at this juncture. What's more, two of West Ridge's preseason victories came at the expense of Panguitch — which has lost only three times all season long.
WAYNE BADGERS: "I think we're one of the top four teams," said Wayne coach Scott Ellett, whose program has taken home five state titles since 2002, including three straight from 2006-08. "I like our chances and I feel good about the way our players have progressed. We're a much better ballclub now than they were first week of August. Our defense has improved a lot, we have more depth with our hitters and we've got some young hitters that are starting to improve.
"Our region is tough, and there's going to be two really good teams from our region that don't go to state."
Randy Ellett, the coach's son, was struggling with a stiff shoulder early in the season, but he threw 112 pitches and allowed just two hits in a 2-1 victory over Panguitch last Wednesday, then followed that up with a five-inning no-hitter against Piute two days later, throwing 45 of 56 pitches for strikes.
"He's spent a lot of time playing baseball over the years and he's doing pretty good for us this year," Coach Ellett said of his star pitcher. "We haven't thrown him a lot early in the year because he's had some stiffness in his shoulder. … But his arm felt good on Monday after pitching twice last week. We need him in October."
Randy Ellett bats leadoff, and Rees is an exceptional No. 2 hitter. "They can't pitch around Randy," Coach Ellett said.
Albrecht bats third and the cleanup hitter is senior first baseman Zack Taylor, who "has been a real highlight for our team this year," Coach Ellett said. "He's done very well at the plate and has hit six home runs and a lot of other extra-base hits."
Rounding out the Badgers' list of senior returning starters is shortstop/third baseman Drayston Nelson.
"Those five all played well for us last year, and we're getting good production out of all five of those players again this year," Coach Ellett said.
PANGUITCH BOBCATS: With three state titles and three 1A runner-up finishes in the last nine years, Panguitch also has a superb program that must be reckoned with.
But Bobcats coach Clint Barney looks at Wayne as the team to beat.
"I think we've been a step behind Wayne the last nine years, and they've got the returning MVP in Randy Ellett, who beat us 3-1 in the championship game last year," Barney said. "We played them last Wednesday at Wayne, and we both threw our aces and they beat us 2-1. He's tough, and whoever beats Wayne is going to have to beat the returning state MVP on the mound, and that's not going to be easy to do. Any team with one stud pitcher like that is hard to beat."
"Our region since the beginning of time and 1A baseball has pretty well owned the state championship. We're a contender, but Wayne, in my eyes, is still the favorite, and whoever the third team is out of our region is also a contender because our region is so strong and every region game is a fight. We seem to be better prepared for the playoffs." Leading the way for the Badgers this year are senior catcher Jory Owens, senior first baseman Tyler Brinkerhoff and senior second baseman Brandon Birch, who are all at least two-year starters and proved solid leadership. Sophomore shortstop Tyce Barney is also one of the team's top players, while junior right-hander Dalan Bennett and junior left-hander Kaden Figgins have been the Bobcats' top two pitchers and have done a solid job.
TABIONA TIGERS: The Tigers are off to a strong 9-1 start, and coach Shay Price is hoping this might be the year his program takes the next step forward.
"Our pitching and defense has a lot to do with it," Price said. "We have a couple of pitchers, (junior right-handers) Stetson Hogan and Monte Clyde, who have been hard for teams to hit. They've both been throwing strikes, and our defense is pretty solid, too. When they throw strikes, we're a pretty good team.
"Our hitting has been pretty good, too. We can put the bat on the ball 1 through 9 in our lineup and put a little pressure on the other team's defense with our hitting. And we haven't had that in the past. Being able to put the bat on the ball 1 through 9 is going to make a difference for us."
Leading the way at the plate for the Tigers is leadoff hitter Myles Potter, a senior center fielder, and sophomore Demont Nay, who can pitch, catch or play third base. Hogan and Clyde bat fourth and fifth in the Tabiona order and have helped themselves with some strong hitting as well as their splendid pitching.
"We haven't ever made it past the quarterfinals in the state playoffs," Price said. "We're playing well, but we know there are teams out there like Wayne, Panguitch and West Ridge that are awfully tough, too. We haven't been able to get past that quarterfinal game before, but we're hoping to do that this year.
"We have a good chance to make it to at least the semifinals if we keep playing like we have been," said Price. "We face Tintic in a doubleheader on Friday, and if we win both games, we'll clinch the region championship.
"We're fairly young, so we might be able to contend for a few years here. This is probably the best all-around team we've had since I've been here. But we're definitely not the favorite. There are a lot of teams out there that we would need to beat that we've had trouble beating in the past."