Rocky Mountain High pitching coach Chris Frith knows about the cruelty of the state baseball tournament.
In 1988, Frith was the pitching coach at Meridian, which entered state with a 28-0 record. It didn’t matter as the Warriors lost on opening day, then again in the consolation game to go from 28-0 and on top of the world to 0-2 and an early start to summer.
“I remember it well,” Frith said of the opening-round loss to Twin Falls, a team that included Mountain View coach Matt Rasmussen and College of Southern Idaho coach Boomer Walker. “They hit a two-run home run over the left-field fence. Those type of things you don’t forget.”
Twenty-seven years later, Frith finds himself in a familiar spot — the pitching coach of a 27-0 Rocky Mountain squad headed to the 5A state tournament. The Grizzlies open against Hillcrest (19-10), the runner-up from eastern Idaho, at 7:15 p.m. Thursday at Memorial Stadium.
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Frith admits he never thought he’d find himself here again, pointing out the tougher schedule Rocky Mountain fought through. State tournament records do not exist for baseball, a tournament not run by the Idaho High School Activities Association. But Frith, who started coaching in the Treasure Valley in 1986, said no 5A team has approached an undefeated season since at least 1988.
“It’s just too hard to do, especially in this day and age, with the caliber of coaches you have across the SIC conference and the quality of teams you have,” Frith said. “It’s just so hard to go undefeated.”
The road to this undefeated season hasn’t always been a smooth one. The Grizzlies, whose JV team went 25-0 this season, have only 10-runned seven opponents in 27 games. And the season has featured plenty of drama.
On opening day, Ryan Beard’s walk-off single against Twin Falls lifted Rocky Mountain to a 1-0 start. Capital, the defending state champion, pushed the Grizzlies to nine innings in April before they broke out with four runs in the top of the ninth. And Meridian held a 7-6 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning in the district semifinals only to watch Rocky Mountain rally as Mike Henard delivered another walk-off single.
“We just have a refuse-to-lose mentality,” said Beard, Rocky Mountain’s ace left-hander and first baseman. “We’re never out there thinking, ‘Ah, crap. We might lose.’ We’re just thinking, ‘Alright, they punched us. So now it’s time to punch back.’
“No one is ever worried we’re going to lose. We think we’re going to come out and win every time. That’s how it has to be.”
Players and coaches at Rocky Mountain all say they never set a goal of going undefeated. As the wins piled up, the spotless loss column couldn’t help but become a topic of conversation. The Grizzlies don’t dwell on it, though, instead focusing on their team mantra to “Get better everyday.”
Never satisfied with what they’ve done, Beard said the Grizzlies strive to continually improve on the little things. They devoted Tuesday’s practice to bunting.
“We treat every game as it’s the same,” senior catcher JT Strickler said. “As the number (of wins) keeps getting higher and higher, the more attention we get. But right now, we’re just looking for a three-game win streak. That’s all anybody is looking for coming into this weekend.”
With that undefeated record comes a massive target on Rocky Mountain’s back. Nampa Christian coach Marc Harris felt that during the Trojans’ run of 61 straight wins between 1996 and 1998. The streak fell seven games short of the national record at the time, which dated back to 1966, and included undefeated seasons and state titles in 1996 (25-0) and 1997 (28-0), as well as another title in 1998 to make the Trojans 75-1 over a three-year stretch.
Harris said it was impossible to avoid the streak. Members of his church he’d never met came up to talk to him about the streak, which he said is more difficult in baseball than other sports.
“In a quarterback, he’s got to have somebody to run the ball and catch it,” Harris said. “In basketball, you have to have someone to defend. In baseball, one guy can carry you, so it makes it tough to carry those streaks.”
And baseball is filled with potential pitfalls out of any team’s control.
A single misplaced blade of grass can create a bad hop that spawns a big inning for the opponent. A blown umpire’s call can kill a needed rally. A stud opposing pitcher, or even a mediocre one, can throw the game of his life and shut down a potent lineup.
Even a single misplaced pitch — like the one Twin Falls lifted over the fence to knock off Meridian in 1988 — can turn a win into a loss.
But Rocky Mountain pitcher/third baseman Seth Reisbeck said the Grizzlies aren’t dwelling on any of that or the past. He said Rocky Mountain’s previous 27 wins won’t mean much unless it caps it off with three more at state.
“In these next three games, these are going to be the closest games of the year, probably,” Reisbeck said. “We’re ready.”