Watch where you’re standing: Devils host first round of districts
Eagle Valley manager Robert Ellsworth stands pretty quiet, most of the time, in his chalked advising box. He’s told leadoff hitter Micah Bernhardt to drive the ball. It’s standard advice. He calls on pitch hitter Jose Meza to bunt and it works.
Wednesday in practice, he throws a bat to the ground, expressing the frustration of being peppered with foul balls by junior Justin Wood. Wood, a catcher and first baseman, hits batting practice fastballs into the outfield too, but a sizzler down the third base line has Ellsworth, who had been hitting ground balls to infielders, laughing.
He has all the reason in the world to be happy and light-hearted. His team is 15-4 overall and just won the Western Slope League for the eighth straight year. He starts six seniors and has a pitching staff of six interchangeable parts. His team leads the 3A state in hitting (.478), averaged 11 runs a game, and has two of the top three hitters for average in the state.
Wood’s striping the ball at a .640 pace, while Bernhardt’s chipping in with a .627 average.
Friday, however, marks a new season for Ellsworth’s club. The Devils host Hotchkiss at the Eagle Valley Fairgrounds for the first round of districts. Hotchkiss, the same team that beat Eagle Valley in the district championships last season, beat Basalt 15-0 Tuesday to advance. Hotchkiss, 11-8 overall and 4-6 in the League, is coached by an Eagle Valley graduate and is more than an acquaintance of Ellsworth.
“My family lives over there still. The coach and I are friends,” said Bulldogs coach Jason Yantzer. “The sad part is someone has to go home. But I’m excited.”
It’s obvious the two coaches talk.
When describing what Hotchkiss will need to do to upset Eagle Valley, Yantzer said, “We need to just play solid baseball.”
Ellsworth described his team’s needs, adding, “We just have to go out and play our game. It’s still fundamental. Our guys are going to go for it anyway. If we just can not get too up, and not get too down, and stay even-keel.”
Being “even-keel,” it seems, is a matter of following the example of the manager. Ellsworth is not a coach afraid to laugh before, during or after a practice or game. Ellsworth is also not afraid to talk about the last Eagle Valley state championship in 1974. He talks about it like he expects that to change.
The players do too. They have their own language developed and a few necessary superstitions – something as natural in baseball as a bat and cleats.
“Me and Nolan (Royle) keep telling each other it’s a 3-2 special,” said Bernhardt, a member of the all-state team last season. “Get on base three times and score twice. If three or four people can do that, that’s six or eight runs. You’ve got to be a good hitting team to score six runs on us.”
Bernhardt’s superstitions are simple. He warms up the same before he steps into the batters box. Pitcher and shortstop T.J. Stanford has a good luck charm he kisses before the game.
And as for Royle?
“It’s ridiculous. I have a different shampoo in the shower I use for games,” said Royle, who’s batting .527 with four home runs on the season. “I only think about it at the moment. Game time, I’m not thinking about it at all.”
And yes, even Ellsworth has his ritual.
“I stand in the dugout a certain way,” Ellsworth said. “If something goes wrong, I just switch spots.”
The first pitch Friday is scheduled for 4 p.m. If the Devils win Friday, they will play Saturday at 9 a.m. in Grand Junction at Canyon View. The district championship is scheduled for 2 p.m., while the consolation final is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. The top three teams advance to regionals starting May 9.