Varsity Extra

Top 5 storylines at the state baseball, softball tournaments

Rocky Mountain sophomore Gabe Hughes pairs with junior Ethan Christianson to form a potent 1-2 punch for the Grizzlies.
Rocky Mountain sophomore Gabe Hughes pairs with junior Ethan Christianson to form a potent 1-2 punch for the Grizzlies. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Idaho’s high school baseball and softball tournaments kick off this week from Boise to the Idaho Panhandle to the Magic Valley to even Oregon.

The three-day baseball tournaments start Thursday, with the two-day softball tournaments beginning Friday. All five classifications award their state titles Saturday.

Here’s what to watch as 30 Treasure Valley teams vie for state championships.

See the full brackets for every baseball and softball tournament here.

IS EAGLE SOFTBALL FINALLY VULNERABLE?

The Mustangs have walloped all takers the past three years, compiling an 84-3 record and entering the 5A state tournament at Coeur d’Alene High as the two-time defending champion.

Eagle (25-2) has earned the distinction as the unquestioned tournament favorite. But squint hard enough and cracks have started to form in the Mustangs’ armor.

The defending MaxPreps.com national champ remains an offensive juggernaut, slugging 42 home runs and scoring 9.7 runs a game this season. But that’s down from 65 home runs and 13 runs a game last season.

And despite two Division I commits in the pitcher’s circle — senior Autumn Moffat (BYU) and sophomore Gabi Peters (Boise State) — Eagle is surrendering 1.8 runs a game, up from 0.9 last season.

Neither could be considered a weakness. But after serving as the coyote to Eagle’s road runner the past two seasons, opponents will take anything they can get.

A pair of Treasure Valley teams — Rocky Mountain (17-7) and Meridian (19-7) — have quieted Eagle’s potent lineup this season, handing the Mustangs two of those three losses in the past three years.

Eagle has since beaten both challengers during its 13-game winning streak, but both loom as potential obstacles. And so does first-round opponent Boise (20-7), the SIC regular season champ Eagle squeaked by 2-1 on April 25.

Sophomore Ashley O'Connor hit a walk-off double in the bottom of the seventh inning to give Eagle a 2-1 win over Meridian in the 5A District Three championship game. Senior Autumn Moffat scored from first base on the play.

HOW WILL BASEBALL’S PITCH COUNT AFFECT THINGS?

The Idaho High School Activities Association sanctions baseball as a sport but does not sponsor its state tournaments, allowing each classification’s coaches to run the postseason. Even with no requirement to follow IHSAA rules, managers for each of the five state baseball tournaments confirmed that they will enforce Idaho’s new pitch count rule.

The rule states no pitcher can throw more than 110 pitches in a game and mandates rest based on how many pitches he has thrown — 1-35 (no days), 36-60 (one day), 61-85 (two days), 86-110 (three days). If a pitcher throws 55 pitches Thursday, he must take Friday as his day of rest before pitching again Saturday.

The rule also declares that no one can throw on three straight days, and a pitcher can finish a batter if he reaches 110 pitches in the middle of the at-bat.

The pitch count has forced coaches to adjust and develop deeper staffs. But the real managerial challenges lie at state, with potentially three games in three days.

In the past, teams often used their ace on the first day of the state tournament, then brought him back for the championship game Saturday. That’s no longer really an option because any pitcher throwing more than 60 pitches is lost for the rest of the tournament.

HOW FAR CAN ROCKY MOUNTAIN’S ACES CARRY THEM?

Rocky Mountain (19-5) enters the 5A state tournament as the SIC regular season and district champ. But more importantly, it brings two bona fide No. 1 starting pitchers into a tournament where pitching is at a premium.

Junior left-hander Ethan Christianson, a Seattle University commit, and sophomore right-hander Gabe Hughes, a Gonzaga commit, have dominated hitters throughout the Treasure Valley all year. Christianson is 7-0 with a 0.68 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 32 innings, while Hughes sports a 5-0 record with a 1.02 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 41 ⅓ innings.

“With those two guys, it’s just great to have them out there. You’ve got a shot every time,” senior first baseman Nolan Walker said. “You know they’re going to hit their spots and they’re very confident, and that gives us confidence out in the field.”

The Grizzlies also boast an envious amount of depth behind their two aces. Senior Brooks Juhasz is 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA in 22 ⅔ innings, and Walker is 1-0 with a 2.52 ERA in 16 ⅔ innings.

But Rocky Mountain faces a tough test in the first round against Coeur d’Alene (15-10), which swept a pair of one-run games from Rocky Mountain on March 24. The Vikings handed Juhasz his lone loss, and Christianson threw three innings of one-hit ball against Coeur d’Alene but did not factor into the decision.

Hughes did not face Coeur d’Alene this season.

WILL THE 4A SIC’S SOFTBALL DOMINANCE CONTINUE?

Since the creation of the 4A classification in 2001, Treasure Valley teams have owned the state tournament, winning 14 of 16 championships.

Middleton (24-3) enters as the defending state champ and returns eight starters from its championship team, including ace sophomore pitcher Lainey Lyle. The Vikings have won 18 of their last 19 games to win their first district title at the 4A level. But district titles don’t always translate into state championships. Of the 4A SIC’s 14 state champions, only seven won the district title in the same season.

That opens the door for first-year Ridgevue, which split its season series with the Vikings, and Bishop Kelly, which is 0-3 vs. Middleton but forced extra innings in the district finals.

CAN FRUITLAND HANG ANOTHER BANNER?

Few bets are as sure as the Fruitland baseball program. The Grizzlies (19-3) have won three straight 3A state championships, and seven of the last nine, and enter this year’s tournament at Treasure Valley Community College with another loaded squad.

Fruitland has mashed the ball all season long, scoring 11.4 runs a game. And the Grizzlies are battle tested, with two of their three losses coming to 5A programs Borah and Hillcrest.

The only other team to beat Fruitland all season — conference rival Payette (15-11) — looms on the other side of the bracket, setting up a potential championship rematch.

Michael Lycklama: 208-377-6424, @MichaelLycklama

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