Lone Peak and Davis both have a core of great players back from last year, and (Region 1 champion) Fremont was very good a year ago and has done a great job with that group of kids. If you look at things like that, they're much better teams than we are. —Bingham head coach Joe Sato
Bingham High School's baseball program has historically been the most successful in the state of Utah, piling up 21 state championships — more than double that of any other 5A or 4A program.
And although he'd be the last person to admit it, the Miners' longtime head coach, Joe Sato, has played a huge role in that success, first as a player on their 1974 title team, then as an assistant coach on four of those championship squads and four more state titles as the Miners' head coach.
But when he was told his team was ranked No. 1 in the Deseret News poll heading into this year's 5A state tournament that starts Tuesday, Sato couldn't help but chuckle a little bit.
Though he realizes his program has a tremendous tradition, he feels like there are several other schools, particularly Region 4 champion Lone Peak (19-5 overall) and undefeated Region 2 champ Davis (24-0), that probably deserve a higher ranking than his Miners (18-7) do this year.
"Those other two ballclubs that won their league are really good ballclubs and have great players," Sato said. "Lone Peak and Davis both have a core of great players back from last year, and (Region 1 champion) Fremont was very good a year ago and has done a great job with that group of kids.
"If you look at things like that, they're much better teams than we are. Lone Peak, Davis and Fremont have all got great players and we're not in that caliber, if you look at it on paper.
"Our kids work really hard and we do have a great tradition, but that tradition started a long time before I got here and I've just tried my best to keep it going," Sato said. "Our kids buy into that tradition and work really hard and compete really well."
The Miners' mound staff is led by junior pitcher Peyton Jones (6-1 with a 1.09 earned-run average) and sophomore hurler Derek Soffe (5-1 with a microscopic 0.28 ERA), while Nick Burdette (who's hitting .559), Simon Tait (.412), Tate Farnsworth (.388), Chad Wilson (.333) and Copper Hansen (.326) spearhead Bingham's batting attack.
"Our pitching has been pretty good and we're young on the mound, too," Sato said. "And all of our kids have taken their turns at coming through at the plate during different parts of the season for us.
"We just have to have some timely hitting, which we've had, and play some solid defense, and any team at any level of baseball that does that is gonna win some games. You've gotta throw it, you've gotta hit and you've gotta catch it."
Davis, ranked No. 2 in the 5A poll, "has found a way to win all 24 of its games, so you can't take that away from them," Sato said. "That's not an easy thing to do."
The Darts have a strong three-man rotation of Ben Rigby (7-0, 1.13 ERA), Dom Fuller (6-0, 0.48 ERA) and Jaxon Knight (6-0, 1.99 ERA), while centerfielder Austin Birrell (3-0, 158 ERA) and shortstop Stockton Hall have also turned in strong pitching stints for Davis as well.
Offensively, the Darts are loaded with solid sticks throughout their lineup, led by Knight (hitting .600 with 26 RBIs), Hall (.384 with 27 RBIs), Fuller (.354 with 27 RBIs), Tate Larsen (.356 with 23 RBIs), Birrell (.342 with 27 RBIs and 10 stolen bases), Rigby (.390 with 21 RBIs), Jamison Burningham (.423 with 20 RBIs) and Brevon Holmes (.386).
Veteran Davis coach Dave Leo says his squad has never really talked much about being unbeaten, but they've sure had a good time winning the way they have this year.
"We know what we can do and we're just excited to be a part of this," he said. "I think our momentum has been as strong as it's ever been. We say 'Hey, let's go out and play as hard as we can and have as much fun we can, and we'll just deal with the results at the end of the game.'
"One thing we would really like to do is play some of those teams from down south, and I think we can compete with those teams."
Asked if this was the best team he's had in his 15 seasons at the Davis High baseball helm, Leo said, "Without a doubt. This team can hit the ball, we've got great defensive players, and we've got five kids that can pitch. And we can run the bases a little bit, too.
"This bunch has a great attitude. They don't look forward, they don't look past anybody, and we've had a blast this season. So now let's just keep it going for a couple more weeks."
If they do, the Darts could become the first Davis team to win a state championship in baseball in 40 years.
Lone Peak is led by the one-two pitching duo of Seth Corry (7-0, 1.26 ERA) and Payton Freeman (6-1, 2.53 ERA), while Payton Barney has been big on the mound, too, posting a 4-2 record with a 2.36 ERA.
Freeman has also been huge at the plate for the Knights, hitting .469 with nine home runs and 31 RBIs. Other top hitters for Lone Peak include Eli Norman (.397, 26 RBIs), Colton Easton (.416, 22 RBIs). Barney (.390) and Tyler McPherson (.340).
And after falling in the 5A finale last year, the fourth-ranked Knights will have their sights set on finishing what they started last season.
Region 1 champ Fremont (19-6) has three solid starters in Jestin Schickel (7-2), Kyler Bush (5-0) and Justin Flinders (5-0), and the Silver Wolves' batting attack is led by Haze Hadley (.422 with 10 stolen bases), Kade Skeen (.407), Bush (.400), Brennan Roundy (.370), Flinders (.358), Schickel (.333) and Tyler Clark (.309).
Pleasant Grove, which enters postseason play at 16-9 overall, is the Deseret News' fifth-ranked 5A team and has a pair of solid pitchers in Logan Hooley (5-0) and Staley Hansgen (4-2).
Brock Watkins (.417 with 35 RBIs), Ethan Coombs (.362 with 13 stolen bases), Ty Lewis (.373 with 20 RBIs), Kaino Pula (.338 with 25 RBIs), Connor Johnson (.351), Jaxon Brown (.302 with six home runs) and Hansgen (five homers and 21 RBIs) lead the Vikings at the plate.
Defending 5A state champion American Fork, which took the title last year by beating Lone Peak twice on the tournament's final day, is ranked No. 3 in the Deseret News 5A poll. The Cavemen, who tied for second place in Region 4 along with Pleasant Grove and Lehi, are 17-9 overall, while Lehi is 17-8 and cannot be overlooked, either.
Jordan, which finished tied for second place in Region 3, is 17-8 overall, and the Beetdiggers own the distinction of knocking off top-ranked Bingham twice this season during league play.
Cottonwood, which tied with Jordan for the runner-up spot in Region 3, also brings a 17-8 slate into the state tournament.
And Region 2 runner-up Layton has an 18-6 record, with three of those losses to undefeated Davis during region play. The Lancers get strong pitching from Tanner Kofoed (6-0, 1.39 ERA), Carson Lomax (6-1, 1.69 ERA) and Brock Wadman (6-2, 1.58 ERA).
Jordan Harrop (.507 with 23 RBIs), Drew Ferneau (.403), Braxton Gold (.346), Braden Esplin (.317) and Lomax (.312) lead Layton's batting attack.
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