Mike Terry, Deseret News
Sure, if you look outside today, it probably doesn't look much like baseball weather right now.
But hey, welcome to springtime in Utah, where it might be snowing one day and 70 degrees with plenty of sunshine the next. From now until May, when the state high school baseball tournaments roll around, you're never quite sure whether to pack your winter coat and a blanket or your sun block and Bermuda shorts.
One thing is certain, though — Utah high school baseball teams are going to play a full season this year, even if they have to cram some crazy scheduling in at the end to get all their games played.
A couple of Utah County teams, American Fork and Spanish Fork, loom as preseason favorites to take home this year's state titles in their respective 5A and 3A divisions, while Mountain Crest was tabbed to claim the 4A crown and Richfield topped the Deseret News preseason poll for 2A teams.
American Fork, the preseason pick of 5A coaches who filed ballots before the season began, is off to a solid 3-1 start. Spanish Fork, the overwhelming favorite to claim the 3A crown after being picked first on all but one ballot, has lived up to that advance billing by sprinting out to a 6-0 start, outscoring its opposition by a lopsided 48-7 margin thus far.
Mountain Crest, though, has struggled out of the gates, as the Mustangs are just 1-3 and have been outscored 27-10 through their first four games. And although 2A favorite Richfield is rolling along at 5-2, Gunnison has gotten out of the gates with a strong 8-0 start, outscoring its first eight opponents by a wide, combined margin of 77-15.
American Fork has its sights set on improving upon last season's strong 24-6 showing, and the Cavemen are counting on their pitching and defense to show the way.
"We've some guys and the caliber that compete, but there a lot of other really good teams out there," A.F. coach Jared Ingersoll said. "You look at Bingham and the way they won it all and some of the returning guys they've got this year. I really believe there are seven or eight teams that can beat anybody else on a given team.
"We've got some good returning guys, too. Our pitching staff is one of our strengths, defense is one of our strengths, but our offense has been a little inconsistent. We've had some games where we haven't done as well as we thought we should."
Junior catcher Zac Willis, outfielder Mo Flinders, and pitcher/infielder lead the Cavemen position players, while left-hander Wade Brailsford and right-handers Danny Beddes and Riley Otteson pace the pitching rotation.
"Last year we were able to fly under the radar a little bit," Ingersoll said. "This year we've got more of a target on our backs."
Copper Hills, with six returning starters plus virtually the entire core of its pitching staff returning, has a senior-laden lineup that looks like another strong contender in the 5A ranks. The Grizzlies get plenty of offensive production from Zach Watts, Jake Morgan, JC Bird and Bryson Allen, with Ben Wright and Treven McPherron heading up the mound staff.
Defending 5A state champion Bingham, which piled up a glossy 27-3 record in 2011, should also be a strong title contender again, led by pitcher/shortstop Brady Lail, outfielder Connor Williams and first baseman Josh Sandquist.
Jordan, Cottonwood, Lone Peak and Taylorsville also garnered plenty of respect in the 5A coaches' preseason poll.
Mountain Crest doesn't have a lot of starters back from last year's 20-8 team, but the Mustangs will be counting on shortstop Trace Hansen, pitcher Justin Petersen and catcher Tanner Richardson to lead the way for a young lineup that could have as many as three sophomores in the starting nine.