If there was any question as to who the best team is in 1A/2A District 5 competition, it was answered last week as No. 1-ranked Paonia swept a two-game series against No. 2 Hotchkiss.
Paonia 4, Hotchkiss 3
In Thursday's opening game, the Bulldogs were one base hit away from tying the game up in the bottom of the seventh inning in their 4-3 home conference loss to Paonia. Both teams put their ace pitcher on the mound -- junior Kaden "KJ" Seriani for Paonia and junior Jonathan Gonzalez for the Bulldogs.
"That's a very talented team and we played pretty dang well today," said Bulldogs head coach Blake Carlquist. "I'm pleased with the way they battled. A base hit away, pass ball away from tying it up. We were in a position to win it late. That's all you can ask for."
"Turned out just the way I thought it would," said Paonia head coach Nate Miller. "I knew it would come down to the seventh inning. They battled hard. They're well coached; they have good kids." But that's always the case with Hotchkiss, "You never know what side you're gonna be on."
Paonia came back from a 5-1 deficit to defeat Grand Junction earlier in the season, but this was their closest game, said Miller.
Paonia's first hit off of Gonzalez came off the bat of Colby Simpson, who started the third inning with a double to right-center field. A single by freshman Gray Neal advanced Simpson to third, and Simpson took advantage of a passed ball to score the first run.
Neither team found a hit in the fourth inning. In the fifth, Eagle Slater Podgorny hit to the hole in right-center field and Seriani followed with a single to left field. Jaden Miller brought both runners home on a single, giving Paonia a 3-0 lead.
The first Bulldogs hit came with two outs in the fifth inning when Marvin Guereque slammed a solo home run over the right field fence.
Kale Litzelman took the mound for the final two innings, allowing two hits and one run. Gonzalez was five pitches away from hitting his allowed pitch count and Carlquist wanted to bring in his relief pitcher, and the Eagles' top hitters were due up. "I thought that was good timing to bring him in."
In the top of the seventh Paonia increased the lead by three on a run by Seriani. Dagan Rienks loaded the bases on a single, and the Bulldog defense threw the lead runner out at home plate and retired the final batter at first.
In the bottom of the seventh Gonzalez singled to first. Seriani retired the next batter. Litzelman followed up with a single. Eli Kirk advancing Litzelman to third base and allowed Gonzalez to score on a single. With two outs, Guereque advanced Kirk to second. Seriani retired the final batter to end the game.
Seriani retired 14 batters, allowed three hits and one earned run in seven innings.
Miller said he's been asked all year if the playoffs could come down to the two North Fork teams. "Absolutely," he said. "The team to beat in 2A is Hotchkiss." That they're ranked eighth or ninth in state doesn't mean anything, said Miller. To him, they are one and two. "When they play us, they play hard. They could be one on one day and they could be two the next day."
Paonia 8, Hotchkiss 2
When asked earlier in the season which game he looks forward to most, senior Trevor Smith didn't pause. "Hotchkiss." In game two of last week's series, also the last home game of his high school career, Smith threw his first winning game against Paonia's biggest rival, allowing six hits and two earned runs in 6.1 innings. "I just knew I had to keep my composure on the mound and just pitch my game," said Smith. "I knew I'd come out on top, and I did."
Hotchkiss wasted no time in getting on the board. In the first inning, and with two outs, Chase Hiatt got to first on a bobbled grounder. Litzelman followed with a base hit, and Chase Hiatt scored on a single by Eli Kirk. Paonia first baseman Dagan Rienks grabbed up a grounder by Guereque for the out at second, leaving two Bulldogs on base.
Paonia took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the second, with Lozano scoring the first run and Rienks driving in two runs on a line drive double past second base.
Hotchkiss couldn't buy a hit in the third, and the bottom of the inning Paonia broke open the game, starting with a two-run single by Lozano. Hotchkiss pitcher Eli Kirk walked Simpson, and Rienks hit the ball between center and left fields for a one-run double. Hotchkiss put Mario Espinoza on the mound, and with two outs Slater Podgorny drove in a two-run double.
In the fourth, Seriani made a diving catch in center field off the bat of Kirk for the first out and shortstop Colby Simpson retired two on 6-3 outs.
In the seventh, Smith struck out the first batter, then walked two in a row. "I looked at the coach and told him it was about time to come out," said Smith, whose arm was feeling it from the start of the game. "I just pitched what I could and decided to let (junior Anders) Schopp finish the job."
Devin Curtis scored the Bulldogs' final run on a Hiatt double. With one out and runners on first and third, Schopp struck out the final two batters.
"It was fun, definitely fun," said Smith after the game. Tradition says they want to beat each other. "That's just how it is... We probably play each other harder than we would play anybody else."
The team also knew they would win the series if they stayed humble and played their game, said Smith. "It's what we've been doing all year, is just finding a way to win."
The wins give Paonia a 17-0 record heading into the final week of regular-season play. Paonia played host to Nucla on Tuesday for its final game. The Mustangs were 8-8 overall, 5-0 and in first place in 1A District 1 standings. In its April 14 game, Paonia defeated Nucla, 18-1.
Hotchkiss ended the season at 12-4 overall and 5-2 and in solid second place in 2A District 3/5 standings.
It finishes the regular season with a doubleheader against Sargent this Thursday at Monte Vista. The Farmers are 7-6 overall, 5-1 and in second place in 2A District 1 standings.