American Fork High School waited nearly three decades before finally taking home a coveted state championship in baseball last year.
Now, as they enter the 2013 campaign almost a year after ending that long title drought, the Cavemen are hoping for an encore performance.
With a lineup featuring last year's 5A Most Valuable Player, pitcher/shortstop Riley Ottesen, and his battery mate, first team All-State catcher Zac Willis, American Fork will obviously be strong again up the middle. But the Cavemen have some big holes to fill in their lineup after losing several key members of last year's state title team, which went 25-6 overall, to graduation.
American Fork is ranked second in the Deseret News' season-opening 5A prep baseball poll, as the Cavemen find themselves right behind Region 4 rival Bingham, which sits atop the season's first set of 5A rankings. Riverton is next in line in the No. 3 spot, followed by fourth-ranked Jordan and No. 5 Alta.
Maple Mountain has moved into the top spot in the season-opening 4A poll, with Mountain Crest coming in second and Salem Hills, Murray and Timpanogos rounding out the top five, in that order.
Defending 3A state champion Snow Canyon is perched atop the 3A poll, with perennial powerhouse Spanish Fork second and Juan Diego, which lost to Snow Canyon in the championship finale of last year's state tournament, ranked third. Canyon View comes in fourth and Cedar is fifth in the first 3A poll of the year.
And in the 2A ranks, defending state champ Gunnison is again riding high in the saddle as the top-ranked team, followed in order by Millard, San Juan, Emery and Beaver.
Ottesen pitched a complete-game victory in the 5A championship game and came up with a clutch two-out RBI single for the go-ahead run in the sixth inning of the decisive contest against Taylorsville. He finished the year with a 9-1 record and superb 1.44 ERA, striking out 81 batters in 63 innings. Ottesen was also tough at the plate, where he hit 460 with eight doubles and a team-leading 28 RBIs.
"Yeah, it doesn't hurt to have him back," American Fork coach Jarod Ingersoll, who in 2012 guided the Cavemen to their first state baseball title since 1985, deadpanned of his team's top player from a year ago.
Willis also returns after batting .356 and knocking in 26 runs last season. Ingersoll is also counting on pitcher Sean Hartman, second baseman Zach Haws and infielder/pitcher Brock Lamb to make big contributions for his ballclub this season.
"We've got a good nucleus to build off of," Ingersoll said. "Most of our infield guys are returning guys, but we have some new guys we have to rely on in the outfield. It's just a matter of them stepping up. We've got guys that are definitely capable; we've just got to make sure they're mentally prepared and tough and ready to go."
Ingersoll sizes up the state title chase as one in which several teams could make some noise.
"There are some really good teams out there," he said, rattling off teams like Riverton, Bingham, Jordan, Alta, Davis and Cottonwood among the title contenders. "But the guys that we have can hopefully be in the mix. It's kind of wide open, but if there was one team I was going to put out there (as the team to beat), it'd be Riverton."
Bingham lost a talented trio of first-team All-State selections in shortstop/pitcher Connor Williams, sparkplug infielder Max Dimick, who batted over .500 and led the team in RBIs and runs scored, and Brady Lail, a right-handed pitcher who was drafted by the New York Yankees.
But veteran coach Joey Sato, whose team took the state title in 2011, has another solid squad led by senior pitcher/outfielder Brennon Lund, a second team All-State selection last season. Catcher/infielder Jacob Druce was also a key contributor for the Miners last season, when they went 24-6 and advanced to the fourth day of the state tournament before falling to eventual 5A finalist Taylorsville.
Riverton's high ranking is based on the return of the Silverwolves' four top players from last season — first team All-State pitcher Tanner Draper (8-2 with a 1.84 ERA), and second team selections Greyson Bogden, Cam Gust and Jared White — who were all juniors a year ago.
Maple Mountain claimed the Region 8 crown and piled up an impressive 24-6 record on its way to making a deep run in the 4A state tournament last season under head coach Gary Miner.
The Golden Eagles return several strong performers off that ballclub, including senior pitcher Arik Mack, a first team All-State selection who went 10-0 with a glittering 1.09 ERA and 109 strikeouts last season; hard-hitting junior outfielder Nick Mafi, senior pitcher Makay Nelson, and senior infielder Jonah Flinders. Mafi and Nelson both earned second team All-State honors in 2012.
Mountain Crest, coming off a 21-9 season which included a Region 5 title and a deep state tourney run of its own, is expecting big things from junior outfielder Luke Smith and junior pitcher Ben Weese, who both earned second team All-State honors as sophomores last season.
Mustangs coach Alex Jensen is also hoping for strong performances from junior shortstop Anthony Peterson, junior utility player Nick Taylor and senior pitcher/outfielder Scott Henderson.
Salem Hills will be bolstered by the return of senior pitcher/outfielder Colton Hill, who had a 9-3 record with a 1.79 ERA on the mound and also knocked in 30 runs last season, when he earned first team All-State honors.
Cam Howe, a senior pitcher/infielder, leads the way for Murray after going 6-1 on the mound and batting a robust .507 last year.
Snow Canyon has several key players back from last year's state championship team which overcame the forfeiture of four league games for using an ineligible player.
Leading the way for the Warriors, who went 21-9 last season despite those four forfeits, is senior southpaw pitcher Riley Gates, whose 9-1 record, microscopic 0.82 ERA and 109 strikeouts earned him first team All-State honors and were a key component in their state title run. Senior infielder Brogan Secrrist, who hit .375 with 25 RBIs and 31 runs scored, also returns after his own first team All-State season, as does second team All-State selection Chandler Day and catcher Brady Sargent.1 comment on this story
And the Warriors will have extra incentive to repeat as state champions, as they can dedicate this season to the memory of K.J. Harrison, a key contributor on last year's title team who tragically drowned during a scout outing last summer.
Gunnison, which piled up a 24-2 record last year on its way to sweeping the state title, lost some solid senior stars via graduation. But the Bulldogs still return senior pitcher/shortstop Colby Caldwell, who was a second team All-State selection last season.
Senior pitcher/outfielder Dakota Bullock, a first team All-State player who went 8-3 last season, leads the way for Millard.