Baseball: Raptors’ rapid rise on baseball diamond drawing notice

Eaglecrest in double figures in wins for first time in more than a decade, exhibiting characteristics that could continue hot start

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Senior Jayden Smith, right, and several other Eaglecrest baseball players stand at the fence and encourage a teammate at bat during the Raptors’ 9-5 win over Grandview on April 18, 2017. Camaraderie, talent and belief all have combined to get Eaglecrest in double figures in wins for the first time in more than a decade and lead the way among Aurora teams in the first half o the 2017 season. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

If Las Vegas had a line on which Aurora prep baseball team would be the first to reach 10 wins in 2017, the odds that it would be Eaglecrest might have been astronomical.

Try 100:1 if not longer.

After all, Aurora is home to defending Class 5A state champion Cherokee Trail and regular championship series qualifiers Grandview and Regis Jesuit. That, plus the fact the Raptors hadn’t won double-digit games in at least the past decade would have made it very unlikely.

Anybody who bet on the Raptors would be getting paid big time, however, as Eaglecrest became the first Aurora team to 10 wins with a 9-5 win over Grandview April 18. Coach Tory Humphrey’s team (10-1) still has eight regular season games to improve on it and doesn’t look like its slowing down any time soon.

“Every one of these milestones are big; we’re playing a lot of teams who have beat up on us pretty good in the past,” said Humphrey, now in his fifth season.

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Eaglecrest pitcher Hunter Parker, right, and catcher Zach Sulyma fist bump after the Raptors got out of a jam during their 9-5 Centennial League win over Grandview April 18. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

“In the past our victories would be keeping games close and not getting 10-runned,” he added. “Now, we come out and we slam it to people and they relize that we have a pretty good squad.”

Internally, the Raptors believed this season would be different from the past. Then again, they’ve thought that in past seasons as well and it hasn’t quite panned out.

It’s been proven out thus far, this season, as Eaglecrest has handled everybody in its path thus far save for a 6-2 loss to Arapahoe April 14 that ended a 9-0 start.

Only three other teams in the state in 5A — Fruita Monument, Mountain Range and Rock Canyon — have 10 wins so far other than the Raptors. Next best in Aurora is Regis Jesuit, which picked up its ninth win April 19.

“I don’t think anybody else probably thought we’d be where we are, but we come into every season looking to be the best we could be,” junior Andrew Danko said. “From the first day, we knew we had something special. I don’t know if we saw ourselves 10-1, but we believe more with every win.”

Eaglecrest’s players note that the camaraderie on this team is unlike anything in the recent past and Humphrey has seen evidence of that as the players stay late after practice to tend the field or just hang out together in the team’s clubhouse well after they could go home.

After Danko had a rough game in the field against Grandview, a number of teammates came up to him and picked up him.

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Senior pitcher Garrett Tisdall moved into a tie for tops in Class 5A in wins with his effort against Grandview on April 18. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

“We have a brotherhood,” Danko said. “Everybody on this team has each other’s backs no matter what happens. If you mess up or do great, they’ll pick you up.”

That closeness has helped the Raptors win in just about every conceiveable way, from blowouts — three wins by 14 runs or more — to walk-offs (a 10-9 win over Pomona on freshman Reece Atteberry’s RBI) to games against Mullen and Grandview where it’s jumped out to big early leads and held on like the win over Grandview, a team that had won the last three games between the teams, two in lopsided fashion.

While all that builds confidence, the loss to Arapahoe — a game in which the Raptors outhit the Warriors 9-7, but stranded 14 baserunners — might actually loom more significant in how the season continues for the Raptors.

“I think that loss got us to take a step back from being so high and it really got us to humble ourselves down,” senior Garrett Tisdall said.

“In that game, we showed up and thought ‘we’re 9-0, we’re going to win’ and then we got beat. It was actually good for us to take a step down from that platform and rebuild where we were for the first nine games.”

Eaglecrest is off to a 3-1 start in the Centennial League — with a showdown with Cherry Creek looming April 21 — with the tools to sustain that success.

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Junior Andrew Danko has had an outstanding offensive season thus far for Eaglecrest, as he is tied for the team lead with 17 hits and sports a .447 batting average. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Aurora Sentinel)

A pitching staff headed by Tisdall (now tied for the 5A lead with six wins), fellow seniors Hunter Parker and Jayden Smith, Danko and others has been very steady, while an offense also keyed by Tisdall (.500 average, five home runs, 21 RBI) and junior Zach Sulyma (.457, 16 RBI) that has averaged 10.6 runs per game has made them difficult to deal with for everybody they’ve played thus far.

The respect the Raptors have garnered is shown in a lot of different ways from opponents, who now have to throw their aces or at least their No. 2 pitchers against them to have any chance to win.

It’s a change that is noticeable to Eaglecrest players and coaches.

“We don’t want to be taken lightly anymore,” Sulyma said.

The Eaglecrest baseball team cheered on the school’s football team when it went on a lengthy undefeated run, won a league championship and pushed deep into the playoffs in the fall and got behind the boys basketball team when it won the Class 5A state championship in March.

Now, they feel it’s their turn to pick up the momentum.

“The football team and basketball team are very close with us,” Tisdall said. “We’re all friends and we really wanted those teams to do well. They really want us to do well this year.”

Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or sports@aurorasentinel.com. Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel

EAGLECREST BASEBALL TEAM’S 10-1 START

Game 1: Win — Pounded out 10 hits, used six-run second inning in 11-4 win over Vista PEAK; three hits and three RBI for Zach Sulyma; starting pitcher Garrett Tisdall struck out nine in five hitless innings; Game 2: Win — Racked up 10 more hits and had another six-running inning in 10-2 win over Douglas County; Stilian Balasopoulov doubled twice and drove in four runs; Game 3: Win — 17-run explosion in first inning and 20 total hits led to 26-0 win over Adams City; Balaspoulov drove in four runs and starter Jayden Smith struck out seven in five-inning shutout; Game 4: Win — Recorded eight base hits and scored twice in the fourth inning for 2-0 win over Castle View at Coors Field; pitchers Tisdall and Hunter Parker combined on three-hit shutout with seven strikeouts; Game 5: Win — Invoked mercy rule with 11-run fourth inning to beat Liberty 15-1; Andrew Danko homered among three hits; Parker whiffed nine and scattered two hits in five innings; Game 6: Win — Scored six runs in each of first two innings at All-City Field in 17-3 win over Denver South; Balasopoulov, Danko, Sulyma and Reece Atteberry drove in two runs apiece; Game 7: Win — Overcame six errors to outlast Overland for 8-7 win to open Centennial League play; Vincent Donovan plated eventual winning run with sacrifice fly, Danko & Tisdall homered; Smith struck out four in two clean innings of relief for save; Game 8: Win — See-saw game with Pomona went nine innings and eventually ended on Atteberry’s walk-off base hit; Tisdall homered and drove in four runs, Sulyma and Tyler Mills also left yard; Game 9: Win — Scored all seven runs in first two innings and hung on for 7-4 win over Mullen; Tisdall blasted a pair of home runs and drove in five, plus earned win on mound;  Game 10: Loss — Scored just two runs despite nine hits and stranded 14 baserunners in 6-2 loss to Arapahoe; Sulyma and Matthew Barlow drove in runs; Game 11: Win — Six-run fourth inning blew game open in 9-5 win over Grandview; Tisdall homered, doubled and drove in four while pitching 4 1/3 effective innings; Austin Brown homered