It’s been a wet and chilly spring throughout most of Utah this year, but the temperatures haven’t slowed some of the elite baseball players in the state.
Pleasant Grove’s Brock Watkins and Richfield’s Emmitt Hafen have been tearing the cover off the ball this season, while on the mound Skyridge’s Carter Smith and Dixie’s Cooper Vest have been sending frustrated batters back to the dugout with regularity.
Their hot starts are among the many exciting storylines that have unfolded in the first month of the high school baseball season.
For Watkins and Smith, region play is just getting started. For Hafen, Richfield already has eight region wins under its belt, while Vest is 2-0 on the bump already in region play.
None of the four are strangers to success on the big stage, as three of the four were Deseret News first team all-staters last year while the fourth was a second teamer.
The common denominator for them all is an unwavering desire to get better.
“He has the skill set and God-given ability, but he’s enhanced that by his work ethic,” said Skyridge coach Ryan Roberts about Smith.
Said Pleasant Grove coach Darrin Henry about Watkins, “With summer ball, he plays hundreds and hundreds of games every year and it really shows.”
Watkins and Smith have both committed to BYU.
Vest is a junior who has already verbally committed to BYU, whereas Hafen is drawing interest from several smaller schools in multiple sports, but is undecided on his college destination.
Whoever signs Hafen is getting a special talent, according to his coach.
“He’s one in a million, always has been. There’s no quit in that guy. He’s a special breed,” said Richfield coach Faron Reed, who added that Hafen can flat-out see a baseball.
Hafen leads all classifications in home runs (seven), runs (28) and RBI (29). He ranks second with a .600 batting average.
“He’s the biggest driven athlete I’ve ever been around. Tons and tons of extra time, he does so much on his own throughout the week,” said Reed.
During a doubleheader with San Juan two weeks ago, Hafen went a combined 6 for 8 with four home runs and eight RBI.
Watkins’ power numbers are just as impressive against higher-classification pitching.
He ranks second in home runs (four), first in slugging percentage (1.171), first in on-base percentage (.685) and sixth in batting average (.585).
He’s been walked 13th in 54 plate appearances.
“He’s done such an awesome job this year of letting the game come to him. Sometimes you try and do too much. He’s got hitters around him this year and he can let the game come to him and not chase balls. He’s crushing the balls everywhere,” said Henry. “It doesn’t matter if they throw him curveballs or fast balls, it just doesn’t matter anymore. He’s got a balanced approach at the plate. He’s able to stay disciplined.”
Watkins is a four-year starter at shortstop for Pleasant Grove, and has power to all parts of the field. For his career he’s batting .402 with 18 home runs and 106 RBI.
On the mound, Smith and Vest have been equally as dominant.
Smith is 4-0 so far this season with wins over American Fork, Copper Hills, Maple Mountain and Faith Lutheran, Nev. Against Maple Mountain last week he struck out 12 batters in the 5-1 win.
The right-handed Smith has a dynamic arm and he’s driven by hard work.
“That balance of having fun and enjoying the process has never yet become a chore, it’s not a job for Carter,” said Roberts. “The work ethic Carter has and how he’s lifted weights over the last three years, he’s changed his body, and his velocity has really spiked up.”
Smith has gone from 140 pounds as a sophomore to 185 pounds as a senior, and he’s now hitting 92 with his fastball.
Vest is already a legend in Southern Utah for his exploits on the mound at the plate.
For starters, he was the freshman in the 3A state championship who hit a walk-off three-run homer two years ago in Dixie’s 6-4 win over rival Desert Hills.
This season he has three home runs with a .477 batting average and has anchored down the middle part of the lineup for coach Danny Ipson.
It’s what he’s doing on the mound that’s truly special. In three seasons Vest hasn’t lost a game. He was 4-0 as a freshman, 9-0 as a sophomore and 4-0 this season.
The lefty’s ERA sits at a sparkling 0.00 this season which includes a five-inning no hitter against Bonneville back on March 8.2 comments on this story
“He’s been real effective so far this year in being able to hit his spots and work a little bit more effectively. There were some times last year, even as good as he was, his pitch count would elevate and we’d be concerned early on in some games. This year we’ve never really been in that position with as well as he’s been able maintain and manage his control and hit his spots,” said Ipson.
His career ERA is 0.97 in 101 1/3 innings pitched with 166 strikeouts.
“He’s a good leader for us and a great kid on and off the field,” said Ipson.
For Watkins, Smith, Hafen and Vest, all four are on championship-caliber teams and should continue to do great things over the next month and a half of the high school baseball season.