SALT LAKE CITY — Mountain Crest baseball coach Stephen Hansen has seen the powerhouse Spanish Fork Dons firsthand, having lost to them 9-2 in a nonleague game a couple of Saturdays ago.
"They're a very good team — one of the best I've seen in high school," Hansen said. "Their lineup is tough one through nine, and their pitching staff is very good."
In other words, believe the hype.
Spanish Fork, generally considered to be the best team in the state, is an overwhelming favorite to win the 4A state baseball tournament, which begins today with eight first-round games. The Dons are 22-2 and ranked No. 3 in the Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 25.
Spanish Fork, which has lost to just one in-state opponent, is led by its pitching and defense. Hayden Nielsen and Kayden Porter are a combined 15-1 on the mound. The Dons allow a paltry 1.75 runs per game and have recorded eight shutouts.
Porter is also a beast at the plate with 10 home runs and seven doubles. Catcher Jarrett Jarvis has had an outstanding season with 11 doubles and four home runs. Outfielder Travis Still, who will play football at the University of Utah, is one of the best athletes in the state. He has seven doubles, three triples and three home runs this season.
The Dons are loaded, but Salem Hills may have given the rest of 4A reason to hope last week. The Skyhawks battled with the Dons in two games before losing both times by one run. Porter had a walk-off single in one game, and Jarvis had a game-winning two-run single in the other.
Although the Dons didn't lose either game, the Skyhawks showed that Spanish Fork will have to actually show up and play to earn what would be a third straight state championship. The Dons won it in 5A two years ago, and in 4A last season.
"Anybody can be beat at any time," Hansen said. "If you just have that 'good day,' have a few calls go your way, anything can happen."
Mountain Crest is one of a few teams capable of competing with the Dons. Pitcher Rhett Parkinson has been solid all season, losing only once to — who else — Spanish Fork. Junior shortstop Trace Hansen anchors the offense with 13 doubles and two home runs. The Region 5 champion Mustangs had a 12-game winning streak at one point in the season.
Region 9 champion Snow Canyon can also play with Spanish Fork. The Warriors have immensely improved at the plate since last season, and have a great weapon in sophomore phenom closer Riley Gates. Snow Canyon played Spanish Fork tough in the tournament last year, losing 8-6 in the winners' bracket semifinals.
Timpanogos won the Region 7 championship, and is likely looking at a second-round matchup with Spanish Fork. Salem Hills, obviously, showed it can compete with the Dons in two games last week. The Skyhawks have an outstanding ace in Brady Pierce, who has recorded eight pitching wins this season.
East has experienced a big turnaround season and hopes to prove it can compete on the state level. The Leopards shared the Region 6 championship with Olympus and Woods Cross, and ended a 56-year span in which they failed to win a league crown. East finished 16-6 in the regular season, compared to 5-15 last year.
"It's definitely been a huge turnaround for us," said East coach Tony Siciliano. "To kind of flip flop our record shows the effort each kid put into it because they're the same guys (who played last season)."
Region 6 teams took turns knocking each other off during the regular season, and Siciliano believes that will help them in the state tournament. Region 6 teams have a lot to prove in the state tournament after the four clubs that qualified last year were a combined 2-8 in the double-elimination tournament.
"We're a region that the top four teams, or even top five with Stansbury, we're all pretty close to each other," Siciliano said. "We feel like we're more battled-tested because we had to play good competition day-in and day-out."