The Eagles are on an eight-game winning streak after routing Meeker Saturday in a conference doubleheader. Last Tuesday, Paonia overcame a four-run deficit in an extra inning to win in game one of two over visiting Battle Mountain High School.
The Eagles held the Huskies scoreless for six innings for a 5-1 win in game two.
Against Battle Mountain, Paonia took an early 2-0 lead in game one. A two-run homer by Husky Chris Duran in the sixth tied the game at two. Paonia left three runners stranded at the bottom of the seventh.
In the top of the eighth, with the game tied at two-all, "We made some crucial errors to make it a four-run game," said head coach Drew Potter. But they didn't give up.
"I think what happened was that they knew it was a do-or-die thing and they stepped up and said, 'We want to win this baseball game.'" All they needed was five runs.
With two outs and Derek Heiniger and Taylor Katzer on first and second, KC Christian singled. The Huskies erred while trying to throw Katzer out at home, allowing Christian to advance to second and Heiniger to score. Leftie TK Kendall singled to first, advancing Christian to third. Dustin Braslin hit a solid double to score Christian, and Landon Long hit a walk-off double for the 7-6 win.
The Eagles held a five-run lead through most of game two, and walked away with a 5-1 win.
Their 4-0 league record, which includes Saturday's wins against Meeker, puts Paonia at the top of the 2A Western Slope standings, although they're not yet getting much notice at the state level, where they are 12th in 2A standings and didn't receive even a brief mention in last week's Colorado Preps report.
But the Eagles are gaining momentum, and some of that could be due to an impressive coaching staff. In addition to a well-seasoned team that includes seven seniors, Potter has managed to pull together an all-star team of coaches. One coached the Eagles to a state championship, another took a local U-13 team to the Babe Ruth World Series, and three are former college players; one also played professionally.
"We have never had the talent out there that we have now," said long-time assistant coach and head junior varsity coach, Don Husted, who first coached for Paonia in 1977. After coaching the team to a state championship in 1989 and a second-place finish in 1990, Husted, whose wife, Dorothy, has kept stats "Since Don was 17," took a break in the early 1990s. He and Dorothy returned under head coach Donny Emmons, who coached until 2007, and stayed to coach under Andy Braslin until 2011. That year, the Eagles placed eighth in state. In 2010, Paonia made the top four.
As far as the coaching staff, "We have never had the talent out there that we have now," said Husted.
Curt Morgan, 2004 graduate of, and star player for, Hotchkiss High School, joined the coaching staff in 2011. Morgan, a 2004 graduate of Hotchkiss High School, played two seasons for Lamar Junior College. He holds four HHS records in hitting and pitching. This year, two former teammates, Ryan and Ricky Sparks, also signed on. Ryan, an all-state player, holds the school records in triples and doubles. Ricky, who holds records for ERAs and at bats, attended Dallas Baptist University on a baseball scholarship, then was drafted by the New York Mets in 2006, where he pitched for three seasons.
Former Hotchkiss player and head coach Bill Carsten, whom one parent referred to as a "baseball guru," coached a Babe Ruth U-13 tri-county all-star team to the World Series and led Hotchkiss into post-season playoffs for "the first time in quite a few years," the year that Morgan was a freshman and Ricky Sparks a sophomore. He was the last to be recruited and would have started earlier if he could.
"I think you're looking at one of the best coaching staffs that we can put together," said Carsten. The trick, he said, is to use them all in a way that brings out the best in the players. "And we've got a lot of talent... I think we're gaining with them."
"Oh yeah, there's a lot of character on this team," said Morgan following Tuesday's wins. "They're coming around." Paonia opened the season with a 0-3-1 record after losses to Delta, Moffat County and Hotchkiss and a tie against Eagle Valley. "Now it's almost a 360-degree turn-around. We're seeing improvement across the board and from JV up."
The concentration of coaching talent is impressive, said Ricky Sparks. "It would probably scare somebody if we put together all the championships that the coaching staff has gathered."
Sparks said he's wanted to get involved in baseball since returning to the area in 2008, after a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery made him re-evaluate what he wanted in life. His injury wasn't a career-ender, but he chose to come home and be with his family. "I'm a lucky guy," he added.
Heiniger pitched in the first win against Battle Mountain, and Long was credited with the win in game two. Pitching was "huge" in those wins, said Sparks, who has a theory about pitchers: "A pitcher keeps the game close enough for the hitters to win."
As a first-year coach with Paonia and with 24 players out this year, Potter is grateful for the help. "As head coach, I can only work with so many kids," he said. It takes a strong coaching staff to successfully run a practice.
The team still has work to do, said Potter. Despite 14-1 and 10-0 conference wins Saturday over Meeker, "We didn't play to our potential." The base running wasn't great and the team lacked focus. "The final score doesn't always tell the story of how we played," he added.
But by the end of game two, their focus had returned, and that was encouraging. Big leads allowed all 13 players to see some action, and all four pitchers threw well.
Coaching is important, added Potter, but when it comes down to it, "You've gotta have the players."
And if the coaches are right, Paonia's got players.
The Eagles will host a non-conference doubleheader this Saturday against Steamboat Springs (4-7, 2-4). The Sailors are one of five Class 4A teams on the Eagles' schedule. Games begin at 11 a.m. at Volunteer Park. On April 16, Paonia plays the final home game of the season against Cedaredge (8-1 overall and league) at 3 p.m.
The Bruins are currently leading the 3A Western Slope League.