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Murray Journal

Cottonwood baseball competes in Last Chance tourney held amid pandemic

Jun 24, 2020 12:05PM ● By Brian Shaw

By Brian Shaw | [email protected]

When a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic put a screeching halt to the 2020 high school baseball season, some coaches around the state decided they would get creative.

After making a few phone calls and emails, the Last Chance Tournament was born on very short notice. Cottonwood head coach Jason Crawford, whose team is the defending Class 5A state champions, debated the idea until he was called back and told he would need to make a decision that day. So that day he posed the question to his players in a team group chat.

Seventeen of them said they would play, but there was another problem. Salt Lake County hadn't fully reopened nor relaxed all of its COVID-19 restrictions. "The players were limited in what they could do," Crawford said. "I just told them to start throwing, catching and hitting wherever you can."

"We didn't practice until the Tuesday after Memorial Day and our first game was going to be that Thursday," he added.

After some debate, organizers and sponsors determined this last chance tournament would best be played in Utah County because restrictions were more relaxed there.

That didn't matter to Crawford, because the last time his team suited up for any action, they were out of state playing nationally ranked teams.

"The day after we got back from Phoenix (for a preseason tournament) in March was when they closed the school," Crawford said. "So the kids were ready for some competition; they were tired of being at home playing Fortnite."

For Crawford, playing in the tournament would also give him and Cottonwood's younger teammates one last chance to say goodbye to seven seniors who gave the school a state championship last year. 

First up, a Last Chance

Cottonwood opened the tournament losing 13-0 to Maple Mountain on May 28 in a game that didn't go long into the evening at all.

That's because the Eagles took only four and one-half innings to dispatch the Colts—Maple Mountain may have had an advantage going into the game because it had been able to practice for several weeks leading up to the tournament.

Cottonwood, on the other hand, was not as fortunate as other teams due to practice restrictions around Salt Lake County and that difference showed in the tournament opener.

The next morning though, the Colts would avenge their tournament opening loss and get their bats humming, winning a barnburner over Mountain View, 5-4.

That victory put the defending state champions in a position to finish in the top two in the Class 5A bracket. In Cottonwood's next game May 30, it put up a slew of early runs en route to a 14-4 win over Lehi, cementing its place in the championship rounds with a No. 2 seed.

"We were playing pretty good ball going into the double-elimination tournament," Crawford said. "We started getting into our groove and you could see the kids started getting into it more."

Championship week

Having secured one of the top seeds, Cottonwood avoided a play-in game and got the next few days off to recuperate and practice.

For the Colts, the first game in the championship round would come against No. 3 seeded Spanish Fork. In that 8-2 win they got out early comfortably and galloped to the victory.

"Our team did a really good job situational hitting and put a lot of pressure on (Spanish Fork)," Crawford said. "Our senior Carson Atkinson pitched that game and threw a lot of strikes."

That win put Cottonwood against No. 1 seed and tournament host Salem Hills. But on this day the Colts weren't able to hang with the top seed, losing 9-7 in nine innings of play.

"We were up 5-2 and after that it felt like the strike zone disappeared," Crawford said. "We walked a few batters, which led to a bases-clearing triple, and then another guy walked and they got a double."

Even with all that going on, Cottonwood was only down 6-5 going into the top of the seventh inning. The Colts tied it up to end the seventh and send it into extra innings.

"We actually took the lead in the eighth, but they tied it," said Crawford. "And then in the bottom of the ninth they hit a two-run homer to beat us."

That loss to host Salem Hills sent Cottonwood into a do-or-die game versus Timpanogos, however, there was some confusion as to what the teams should do between games, added Crawford, so they ended up sitting in the dugout for 90 minutes on a 90-degree day.

End of the line for 2020

This Last Chance Tournament would end for Cottonwood about two hours later, as the Colts gave up four early runs en route to an 8-3 loss to Timpanogos.

"We just got off to a bad start, and we got to within 4-3 in the sixth (on three Cottonwood runs) but then we had guys cramping up because they were out of shape," Crawford said. "And we had to run out some arms that we didn't plan on pitching."

For Crawford, the tournament was well organized, very competitive and had good umpires despite all the strange new rules and guidelines that each team had to follow, such as having players using hand sanitizer between innings and wearing masks in the dugout. 

For Cottonwood's seven seniors, this would be the end of the line for them. But what a ride it's been, as they've collected two state championship trophies in three years.

Bridger Stinson was Cottonwood's starting shortstop and leadoff hitter. Danny Mehr was the Colts' starting catcher and also played left field. Grady Norris was Cottonwood's first baseman and pitcher. All three will be headed to Colorado Northwestern to continue their baseball careers, according to Crawford.

Jaydon Green, who is a pitcher and infielder for the Colts, has yet to commit to a school, Crawford added. The same can be said for Andy Okamoto, Cottonwood's third baseman and reliever as well as Atkinson, who played well for Cottonwood on the mound.

While not having the opportunity at a second consecutive state title is bittersweet to Crawford, he said they are taking it in stride. They were beginning to find their groove in Phoenix against nationally ranked teams during the preseason, and the same held true at the Last Chance Yournament.

"I was proud of how our kids fought and now they're all out traveling and playing and having fun (with their summer league team) so in a way, it's almost like this (pandemic) didn't happen."