The Paonia Eagles held off a seventh-inning rally by the Peyton Panthers to win their second straight Class 2A baseball title Saturday at Pueblo. The win capped off a 10-game winning streak and a 23-2 season.
"Team effort all the way around," said head coach Nate Miller. "No doubt about it."
Paonia was seeded third in the state bracket. In the championship game, senior Jaden Miller set the tone in the first inning against Peyton with a two-out, two-run homer.
Soul Connolly opened on the mound, holding Peyton to two hits and two runs. In the third, with no outs, runners on second and third, and two runs scored, Logan Schopp relieved Connolly, holding Panthers' power hitter Jaeden Meyers to an inning-ending grounder resulting in a double play.
In the fourth, Connolly led off at the plate with a double, and designated hitter Isaac Stanfield followed with a base hit. Stanfield earned the DH spot late in the season. "He just came through big for us," said Coach Miller.
Connolly scrambled home on a single by Clay Campbell. With Stanfield out, Slater Podgorny singled, a wild pitch slammed into David Lozano, sending him to first, and Seriani loaded the bases on a walk. Podgorny scored on a Panther error, and with two outs, Schopp scored Lozano on a single, giving Paonia a 6-2 lead.
With two outs in the top of the fifth, Campbell dropped a double into the right field gap and scored on a Podgorny double.
"Clay came through huge," said Miller. He'd planned to bunt him, but remembering last year's championship win and Garrett Beck's big day at the plate, Miller told Campbell to swing.
"I swung hard and I saw both outfielders running and I said, 'I'm getting two on this one,'" said Campbell. "I turned and looked back at the dugout and everyone's hollering at me... Just fate."
The Panthers got 10 hits off of Paonia. At centerfield, Connolly caught two big fly outs in the final innings. "They were hitting the ball really well," said Connolly. "We knew that coming into this game... It was kind of just catch or go home, and at this point in the season you can't mess up."
In the sixth Miller scored on a sacrifice hit by Grey Neal, giving Paonia an 8-2 lead. In the seventh, the Panthers scored four runs on two-run doubles by junior Rodney Gregg and senior Austin Hermes.
With one out and the tying run at second, Miller stepped in to relieve Schopp, striking out batter Josh Rodriguez to end the game. "Schopp's off-speed pitch wasn't working," said Miller, and Rodriguez wasn't having a good day at the plate. "When I came in, I knew that's what was going to take to get him. I knew that I was going to have to throw him my off speed and keep him off balance a bit."
Schopp was awarded the win. "That shows the depth we have," said Coach Miller. Without their ace, "We've got guys like Anders Schopp sitting in the dugout that hardly ever pitch, and that says how deep we are pitching. He couldn't get that last out, but he was big for us today."
In semifinals, and in scorching 90-plus-degree heat, Paonia defeated No. 7 Dayspring Christian, 7-2. A young team that upset second-seeded Sedgwick County in quarterfinals, Dayspring put up a good fight.
With ace pitcher Seriani unable to throw, Miller stepped onto the mound, allowing four hits in seven innings.
Seriani hit a two-run double in the third to tie the game at 2-2, and in the fourth, with a 4-2 lead, hit a two-run homer. Dayspring has a "great pitcher," he said. "That was kind of the turning point in the day."
Coach Miller credited both wins to the defense. The Eagles turned three double plays against Peyton and four against Dayspring "We haven't turned that many double plays all season," said Miller. "But they executed today."
Paonia wasn't expected to get this far after losing a talented group of seniors last season. "It's pretty awesome," said Coach Miller. "A lot of people counted us out, but you know what? They stayed tough."
Jaden Miller said he believed all season that they would go all the way. Early on, he said, "We were pretty rough. We worked our butts off. We overcame a lot."
After accepting the trophy, the realization set in that eight more seniors will move on.
"There's more heart on this team than I've ever seen," said Seriani, who threw 15 Ks for the win in last year's state title game. He came to Paonia four years ago with a reputation for throwing 90-plus-mph pitches and with big expectations on him.
"I don't know if I've done quite what I was talked up to be," said Seriani. "But I gave my best every season and I gave the team everything that I had. I guess I can walk away with a little bit of pride in that."
The team learned early in the week that he may not play due to an injury. While his absence on the mound was apparent, the team didn't lose faith. "They rallied around him and they got it done," said Coach Miller.
Coach Miller, Jaden's dad, played on state championship teams at Paonia High School in 1996, 1997 and 1998. "That makes five state championships for our family. Pretty special," said Miller.
Seriani will play Division I ball for Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. He gave credit for his success to dad Jon. "The wisdom that he's passed on to me has definitely helped me out more times than not," said Seriani. "My whole life he took me out, he pitched me baseballs, he pitched me golf balls just for fun. We spent a lot of time practicing and going through all the motions." Before he hit the homer against Dayspring, "I had a hitch in my spring. I looked at him, he told me what to do, and the next pitch I had a home run."
It's incredible," said Campbell, who became the third generation of state baseball champions. Grandfather Jess played on Paonia's 1962 state champion team, and uncle Chad Campbell on the 1989 title team.
"You see everyone who supports us and has supported us all year in everything we do," said Campbell. "It's amazing to have that kind of backing from the community. We play for them."