Cougars drop title game to Valor Christian

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By Dennis Pleuss
Jeffco Public Schools
DENVER — Evergreen’s class 4A baseball playoff journey ended where few imagined it would conclude — playing for the state title Sunday, against defending champion Valor Christian.
However, despite the rough ride that included a 3-4 record in the class 4A Jeffco League and just making the postseason with a No. 28 ranking in the RPI, the Cougars believed they had the potential to shock the rest of the state in the postseason.
“At the beginning of the season we knew we were one of the best teams in the state,” Evergreen junior Jack Patterson said following a 7-3 loss to Jeffco League rival Valor in the championship game at Regency Sports Complex at Metro State University. “Although we had some struggles, I imagined us here. This was our only goal: to be on this field on this day.”
The journey was at times an odd one for Evergreen (16-10 record). The Cougars finished in a four-way tie for fourth place in the 4A Jeffco League. Evergreen lost its opening game of the 4A Jeffco tournament to D’Evelyn 8-7 with ace Ben Muscatello on the mound. It was a season-low for the Cougars.
However, back-to-back home wins over Wheat Ridge and Standley Lake set the stage for the Cougars not only to make the 32-team playoff field, but stoked the fire for the improbable playoff run.
“We surprised a lot of people obviously,” Evergreen coach Steve Jones said. “Our kids did let a number (No. 28 in RPI) define them. We had a goal of getting to this game this year.”
District playoff victories over district host Palisade and Fort Morgan advanced Evergreen to the double-elimination state tournament. Battling weather that delayed the tournament a number of times, the Cougars started out the tournament series 3-0 with wins over Air Academy, Thompson Valley and Valor.
“It was incredible, especially being the No. 28 seed,” Evergreen senior Lucas Berninzoni said. “We felt like we could do something magical like this.”
The Cougars found themselves the lone undefeated team in the state tournament going to the semifinals Friday, Thompson Valley ended the seven-game winning streak with a 12-9 win over Evergreen, but the Cougars moved into the state championship game where they would face defeating state champion Valor for the third time this season.
The Eagles (22-5) had blown a 6-1 lead against Evergreen on May 23. The Cougars’ six-run sixth inning put a dent in Valor’s armor, but the Eagles had a big inning of their own in the championship game.
Valor scored five runs on seven hits off Muscatello in the top of the second inning in Sunday’s final.
“I guess I just kept on leaving it up over the plate, and they just kept on putting the barrel on it,” said Muscatello, who shut out Thompson Valley 1-0 in his other state tournament playoff start. “It happens. They were attacking for sure.”
Evergreen closed the gap to 5-2 with a two-run double by senior Ben Setlak in the bottom of the fifth inning. Junior Andrew Stephens scored in the bottom of the sixth inning on a balk by Valor senior Ethan Zemla to put the Cougars into striking distance.
Once we got down early we hoped to start chipping away,” Berninzoni said. “It really didn’t turn out the way we hoped it would.”
Valor punched a pair of runs across in the top of the seventh inning to give the Eagles a 7-3 lead going to the bottom of the seventh. Stephens and Setlak both reached base in the final frame, but Valor junior Justin Estes got Patterson to fly out to left field and senior Ryker Eagen grounded back to Estes to end the game.
“Give Valor full credit,” Jones said. “They are a great program. Coach (Brian) Bonn and his staff are just outstanding coaches. They had their kids ready. I thought they did a great job of taking the opportunities they had.”
The seven seniors who graduated more than a week before Sunday’s state championship game will be missed, but Evergreen has a solid core returning led by Muscatello.
“I’m ready for next season,” Patterson said. “We are coming back hungry.”
The Cougars were able to take a nice piece of hardware home with the 4A state runner-up trophy.
“It’s absolutely special,” Jones said of the furthest run by Evergreen baseball ever in the state tournament. “These are special kids. I think in many, many ways this is by far the most special group of kids I’ve ever had the privilege of coaching. The way they compete. The way they found ways to come back time and time again. We had our backs to the wall a lot this year.”