Tom Smart, Deseret News
When the 2A state baseball tournament gets underway Saturday, there are at least a half-dozen teams that have a legitimate shot at taking home the title.
But that conversation begins and ends with Emery High, the defending state champion that brings back six returning starters off last year's 2A title team.
Sure, having all that postseason experience in their lineup is a double-edged sword for the top-ranked Spartans. Looked upon as the team to beat, they could be feeling some pressure to repeat. But these Emery kids have already been there and done that before, so they know all about producing in the clutch when the game and the championship are on the line.
And Emery coach Steve Gordon, whose team shared the Region 15 title with Grand this year, likes his team's chances.
"We've probably got a little more pressure on us going into it," he said. "I think we've got a little target on us and sometimes you tend to play a little bit tight in that situation. But to be honest, we're probably a little bit better than a lot of teams in the tournament.
"On paper, I feel like we have the best lineup, but a lot of things can happen in baseball. It can come down to one pitch, one catch or one throw. I'm excited for the weekend to start, though. I think our guys are ready and I hope we show up and play like we can."
Gordon says the chase for the championship is actually pretty wide-open between a half-dozen or more teams, and it'll depend on which team happens to get hot at just the right time.
"In 2A, there's basically six No. 1 teams with a lot of ties in all the regions and coin flips being used to decide the seedings," he said. "Somebody out of that bunch is probably gonna win it, whoever gets hot this weekend and next.
"Baseball is a game of momentum and confidence, and whoever comes out confident this weekend has a good shot at it.
"We've all lost a couple of games we probably shouldn't have, so we're all in the same boat," Gordon said. "I would think we're the favorite, but that's why you go play the game."
One thing that could swing the bats in Emery's favor is the fact the Spartans (15-3 overall, 10-2 Region 15) have arguably more pitching depth than any other team in the field.
Leading the way is junior right-hander Dillon Wilstead, who was a first team all-state selection last season and leads a strong mound staff that also includes Ridge Nielson, Tyson Roper and Brayden Burke, a trio that's posted a combined 10-0 mark on the mound.
"My best kid is Wilstead, but we have three other kids that are good, too," Gordon said. "We've got the depth that other teams don't have. Most teams have one or maybe two guys who can throw; we've got four or five. Everybody's got an ace, so we'll see who's got a No. 2 or No. 3 after that. We all play two games on Saturday, so whoever hits it the best is the key.
"We've got several kids who are hitting the ball well," said Gordon, who has just four seniors on his squad this year. "Gavin McDermott (with four home runs and 13 more extra-base hits) has been driving the ball deep for us, and Ridge Nielson, who bats leadoff and plays shortstop, is always solid. Roper's been hitting really well, too. One through nine, we are swinging the bat pretty good. We're pretty solid all the way through our lineup."
Region 15 co-champ Grand (13-6 overall) is led by the all-around talents of senior pitcher/outfielder Koi Cook, a first team all-state selection last year; Cameron Taylor and Tanner White, who've both been tearing the cover off the ball; and pitcher Kyler Nelson, who takes a 5-2 record into the state tournament.
Three Region 13 teams — Beaver, Parowan and Millard — are also expected to make plenty of noise in this year's 2A tourney.
League champ Beaver boasts an 11-3 region record, 15-4 overall, and is led by the pitching duo of Tilston Bradshaw and Tyler Hoyt, who have combined for a stellar 13-2 slate on the mound for the Beavers.
Parowan, last year's 2A runner-up, also has a potent one-two pitching punch in Jake Topham (5-1) and Justice Walker (5-0), while Topham, Caleb Murphy, Brenen Rowley and Kirk Harrison have provided ample offensive firepower for the Rams (14-7 overall, 10-4 Region 13).
Millard (14-6, 10-4) will be counting on Skyler Cranney, who's gone 4-0 on the mound and has hammered out four home runs, eight doubles and five triples this season, along with pitcher Derek Martinez (4-2).
And Region 16 has produced two more strong state title contenders in Manti and Gunnison, who tied for the league title at 12-2 and both bring 16-6 overall records into the state playoffs.
Manti pitchers TJ Pogroszewski, Kyle Robison and James Nelson have put together a combined 11-4 record, and Pogroszewski, Tyler Albee, Keltn Pritchard, Seith Jenkins and Nelson help spearhead the Templars' offensive performance.
Gunnison has gotten great pitching performances from Drew Hill (7-1) and Mason Powell (6-1), and the Bulldogs grabbed a share of the region championship by bludgeoning North Summit 15-2 on Thursday.
After Saturday's first two rounds of the 2A playoffs, the double-elimination tournament resumes next Thursday, Friday and Saturday, May 8-10, at Kearns High.