The Paonia Eagles baseball team topped off a historic season at Hobbs Field in Pueblo Saturday, holding its opponents scoreless in state semifinal and final games to bring home the trophy and end the year with a perfect 25-0 record.
Head coach Nate Miller called the win a "huge redemption" after the Eagles suffered a heartbreaker 4-2 state semifinal loss to Limon last May. "We've been thinking about that all year," said Miller. Paonia never slipped from its No. 1 state ranking. Its season included wins over 5A Grand Junction, 4A Uintah (Utah), and 3A Bayfield. "We were trying to maybe even get them a loss in there somewhere, but they just kept rising up," said Miller. "And I think it was because of that Limon game. They didn't forget about it and they just kept winning."
In post-season play Paonia outscored their opponents, 62-5. Their closest game was a 1-0 first-round state tournament win over eighth-seeded rival Hotchkiss, which also gave Paonia its closest game of the regular season.
On Saturday Paonia opened with a six-inning, 10-0 win over No. 4 seed County Line. The Rivals defeated two teams from District 6, No. 13 Evangelical Christian, 6-2, and eliminated No. 5 Burlington, 6-5 to advance to the semifinals.
Pitcher Kayden Seriani held the Rivals to four hits, walked one, and struck out 15. The junior allowed one hit and struck out three in the second inning, leaving one Rivals runner on base. In the last three innings, Seriani retired eight of 11 batters. Paonia left two Rivals runners on base.
No. 1 batter Slater Podgorny opened with a walk. A stand-up double by Jaden Miller advanced Podgorny to third and set up a two-run single by Seriani to put the Eagles on the board. Alex Lozano scored Miller on a double to center field. Seriani stole second and scored on an error on a hit by Grey Neal for a 4-0 lead.
In the bottom of the third, freshman Grey Neal brought Lozano home on a double, and scored on a one-run single by Garrett Beck.
Seriani retired the order in 10 pitches in the fifth inning. On offense, Beck opened with a triple and scored on a Rivals error. In the top of the sixth the Rivals loaded the bases with one out, and Seriani retired the last two batters.
In the bottom of the sixth, Seriani led off with a single, Trevor Smith was walked, and Lozano brought Seriani home on a double. With the winning run on second the Rivals intentionally walked Neal to load the bases, and Beck hit a sacrifice fly out to center field to score Lozano. With two outs, County Line again loaded the bases on an intentional walk, and senior short stop Colby Simpson stepped up to hit a one-run single, giving Lozano the winning run.
Paonia had 13 hits for the game, and one K. Miller was 2-4 with a double, and Seriani was 2-3 with two RBIs. Lozano was 3-4 with two RBIs.
As they did in last year's playoffs, the big hitters did well, "But the 6-7-8-9 guys were the ones that came through," said Miller. Rienks, who hadn't found a hit in three games, was 2-3 with one double.
Miller said he'd been putting a designated hitter in for Beck, who had five hits for the season prior to Saturday. The night before the game the coaches made the decision not to DH for him, said Miller. Beck went 2-2 with three RBIs, a triple, and two sacrifice flies. "He was one of our best hitters," said Miller. "We put him in there and he came through for us."
In the championship game Paonia faced Rocky Ford. The No. 11 seed, which opened the bracket with a 10-2 upset win over No. 6 Holyoke, then eliminated No. 3 Front Range Christian, 10-1. In semifinals Rocky Ford dominated 10th-seeded Lyons, 7-2.
Smith took the mound for his last time, striking out five, walking one and allowing four hits. In the first inning junior Slater Podgorny opened the game with a triple. "I wasn't thinking triple out of the box," said Podgorny. "I think it set the tone, and it was good to get it going early."
Rocky Ford walked Miller, and Seriani scored Podgorny on a sacrifice fly to the left field fence. Smith singled and advanced to second on an error, and Lozano knocked in a two-run single to give Paonia the 3-0 lead.
In the second, Smith struck out the first two at bats and Beck made the out in right field.
In the third inning Smith hit the ball over the left center field fence for a solo home run to give Paonia a 4-0 lead. The home run, his seventh of the season, came after struggling at the plate the last few games. "I didn't even know it went out," until the team ran onto the field, said Smith.
The home run gave them the momentum they needed to finish the job, said Miller. In the sixth, with two outs and the bases loaded Smith struck out one batter, and Carver ended the inning on a 5-3 out to Rienks. In the bottom of the sixth the Eagles infield ended Rocky Ford's chance to score a 1-6-3 double play.
With one out, Dagan Rienks singled and advanced to second on an error. With Beck on first, Podgorny put Paonia ahead by six on a two-run single.
Miller said he wasn't surprised that they met the No. 11 team in finals. "Once you get over here, everybody's good," he said. "Trevor just kept them off balance." The umpire had a good down zone and Smith "was pounding the zone, getting fly balls and ground balls, and the defense played well behind him." When Smith is on, said Miller, "I'm confident that we're going to win."
"I felt pretty confident the whole game" that they would win, said Smith, especially after taking a three-run lead in the first inning.
Simpson, a senior, said that in football, basketball, and last year's state baseball tournament the Eagles were eliminated in the semifinals. "We broke the curse," he said. "We planned to leave no doubt, and we knew it. This is a good way to go out."
Neal, a freshman and the only underclassman to take the field in post-season play, was 1-3 with one RBI. "It's really good to be on a team like this," said Neal. "We're all family." With a dozen freshmen, four sophomores and six juniors on the roster, Neal said he sees the team back in the finals again next year. "Always shoot high, right? We're coming back."
"There were definitely some nerves going into that semifinal game," said Podgorny, the team's second baseman and a .500 batter with 42 hits in 25 games. "Getting some runs on the board early definitely helped."
Paonia also earned state titles in girl's basketball and track this season. A big crowd made the trip to Pueblo, including PHS choir director Dee Holt. Her choir sang the national anthem ahead of the champion-ship game.
Coach Miller played on state champion teams in Paonia in 1996, 1997 and 1998, but watching son Jaden win a championship was different. "They were pretty special, but this one's definitely more special than those three," said Miller. Jaden Miller is the catcher and the target of Seriani and Smith's fast ball, curve balls and off-speed pitches. He had no errors for the series, and two errors for the entire season.
"Just having my boy out here..." Miller paused. "This whole group, they're all my boys. Pretty special."