There's an old adage in sports. Before you can win it all, you have to know what it's like to lose it all.
The baseball team from Paonia High School learned that lesson painfully last Sunday when the Eagles fell to Limon 4-2 in the 2A state semifinals in Pueblo.
It was a disappointing way to end a season that saw the Eagles (22-2) hold the No. 1 ranking in the state for most of the year. But with no seniors on the ball club, it's a good bet the Eagles will be back next year more seasoned, more experienced, and more hungry.
Paonia manager Nate Miller had a tough decision before the game. Flamethrowing right-hander KJ Seriani could only start one of the potential two games needed to win state, so Miller saved him to start a potential championship game and put junior Trevor Smith on the hill against Limon.
Smith delivered a fine performance, pitching 6.1 innings. It was a hard-luck loss for the hard throwing right-hander as Smith only allowed one hit to the Badgers. Two of the three runs he surrendered were unearned. He walked three and struck out nine.
Paonia had a shot at breaking the game open in the bottom of the first inning with bases loaded and one out. Instead, the Eagles were denied any runs after a 5-2-3 double play ended the inning with the score still tied at 0-0.
Smith faced three batters in the second inning, picking up strikeout number three and getting a pair of 6-3 groundouts to Colby Simpson.
An error to lead off the fourth inning gave the Badgers a baserunner in Tristen Cesko, who eventually scored the tying run for Limon when Jaden Miller threw out Cannan Bennett attempting to steal second.
The most damaging frame came in the top of the seventh. With Paonia clinging to a 2-1 lead, Limon rallied for three runs to seal the deal. At 100 pitches, Smith tired in the last inning and got one out before Seriani ended the Limon threat with 17 pitches.
Paonia couldn't muster a rally of its own in the bottom of the seventh and Limon held on to win. Badgers starting pitcher Joe Stephen beat Hotchkiss in the quarterfinals and then kept Paonia in check to win the semifinals.
The Eagles mustered just five hits against Stephen in the contest. Seriani stroked two of them, including a triple. Paonia's other three knocks came from Dagan Rienks, Garrett Beck and Alex Lozano.
Four Paonia batters walked in the game and the Eagles left nine runners stranded on base. Seriani scored Paonia's first run in the third when Smith hit into a fielder's choice, then Seriani crossed the plate, on a wild pitch, in the bottom of the fifth to put Paonia ahead 2-1. Seriani had reached base on a triple.
Smith and Simpson combined to retire the side in order once again in the sixth. Smith recorded his eighth and ninth strikeouts and Simpson gobbled up a grounder for the final out of the top half of the inning.
But it would not be enough against Limon's rally in the seventh. A walk, hit batsman, two singles and an error contributed to the Badgers' three-run rally and a 4-2 win.
The Badgers went on to be defeated 13-4 in the finals against 2A state champion Dawson School.
Coach Nate Miller's comments following the game summed up the game's play. "The kid (Joe Stephen) was on ... he used his fastball to get ahead and then his curve was spot on."
A reference to Paonia's hitting prowess brought this response. "We didn't get the distance on the ball today. Had some good shots but we hit it at them while they got timely hits."
While the disappointment was evident, there was a twinkle in Miller's eye when there was talk of next year. "We had a goal of winning state this year. That's gone and we will work hard to get back. These are good kids."
"What happened today is baseball. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the better team. That was Limon today. They played hard."
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.