For the Delta Panthers baseball team, the 3A state tournament was a hurry up and wait affair and ultimately a disappointing end to a very successful season, including the Western Slope League title.
Over the span of a few days, Delta prepared and then changed travel plans three times as rains pushed the entire playoff schedule back a week. The Panthers did what they could to stay sharp despite a two-week layoff from play. Coach Steve Reiher scheduled a scrimmage or two and tried to keep the batters crisp with lots of batting practice.
Finally, the Panthers took the field at Butch Butler Field in Greeley to face University early Friday morning, May 25. Senior Jaspar Carmichael took the mound for Delta and set down the first six battlers he faced. In the bottom of the second inning, Delta got on the scoreboard. It started with Trevor Myers hitting a double, followed up with a single from Dylan Hollenbeck. Kolby Keller drove them home with a triple to give Delta a 2-0 lead.
University challenged in the third, but a diving catch and throw out by shortstop Skler Kraai ended the threat.
This was the first of two "jaw-dropping" defensive plays made by Kraai, noted Coach Reiher. He added that the sophomore was fun to watch all season, making difficult plays at crucial times to help his team.
The combination of strong pitching from Carmichael and solid defense kept University scoreless through five innings, but in the top of the sixth University tied the game at 2-2. Drake Horn came in to pitch in the top of the seventh. University mounted a challenge, putting two runners on base. A great catch in left by Kolby Keller, and Horn bearing down for a key strike out ended the threat.
The game went into extra innings when Delta failed to score in the bottom of the seventh. Momentum shifted dramatically as University exploded for five runs in the eighth, and then slammed the door on the Panthers in the bottom of the inning.
The loss was a bitter pill. Coach Reiher said, "I thought we were right there. We needed some timely hits, but for whatever reason we did not come up with those hits. And University was just waiting for a break, and they pounced on it!"
He added, "Naturally, it is easy to blame it on the layoff . . . the kids were swinging so well going into the regionals." Reiher noted that in the two playoff games their top four hitters were two for 31, significantly lower than the better than .400 avg. the four had during the season and regional games. "It wasn't as if they weren't putting the ball in play," said Reiher, " . . . very uncharacteristic for this group."
The 3A tournament was a double elimination format, so the Panthers had an opportunity to come back through the lower bracket. After a short rest Friday, they took on Peak to Peak High School (Lafeyette) in what turned out to be an exciting back and forth battle as both teams played their hearts out to stay in the tournament.
Dylan Hollenbeck started on the mound the Panthers, and gave up a run in the top of the first. Delta's bats came alive for five runs in the bottom of the first, highlighted by doubles from Nolan Bynum and Matt Easter.
A couple of defense miscues allowed Peak to Peak to score three runs in the third and couple more more in the fourth to take a 6-5 lead. The Panthers countered with three runs in the bottom of the fifth but their lead was short-lived. In the top of the sixth Peak to Peak plated four more runs to move ahead 10-8 and held on to beat the Panthers..
After the game Coach Reiher explained this season was especially trying for the kids with the medical crisis which sidelined teammate Clayton Abila, and the death of six-year-old Cole Lahoe, the youngster with whom the team formed a relationship while hosting benefits during Cole's battle with leukemia.
"I think these guys matured as a team, and while rallying around each other, they drew closer," he said. "This is a great group of kids. They worked well together, kept things light, kept things fun. As a coach, it is crucial to have a team that is resilient and able to focus on the field despite what life throws at them. They helped me stay focused as well."
He also thanked the community for their strong support. "From the fans, our sponsors and private donors, we couldn't do it without them!"
He also praised his coaching crew, which consisted of assistant coach Paul Shean, freshman coach Brandon Reiher, general assistants Blake and Keaton Reiher and Ty Gallenbeck, and pitching coach RJ Englehart.
"These guys shared an important message with the players," said Reiher. "These are guys who used to play for me . . . for Delta High School; gained knowledge of college ball, and wanted to help this team. They understand that being part of this program is special, and were able to convey this back to the kids."