CENTRAL POINT — Two capable baseball teams, each with considerable reason to be confident, should make for an intriguing matchup when No. 3-seeded Crater collides with No. 1 Crescent Valley in Saturday’s Class 5A state championship.
For the Comets (24-6), it will be second consecutive trip to the finals as they seek their first state title since 2007. Crater also won the large-school title in 2000 and finished as runner-up in 1974.
For Crescent Valley (28-2), this season marks the first time in school history that the Raiders have reached the state championship after most recently falling short in the semifinals in 2014, 2016 and 2017.
“We kind of keep getting to the semis and finding a way to lose,” said ninth-year Crescent Valley head coach Ryan Starwalt. “For the most part, we’ve just run into some really good teams and really good arms, but we finally broke through.”
The last team to halt Crescent Valley in the state playoffs will be the last one that has a chance to do so this season. The Comets capitalized on five errors by the Raiders and built an 8-0 advantage through two innings before settling for a 9-5 triumph in last year’s semifinals.
There will be some familiarity from that last meeting on Saturday, with Crater senior left-hander Larson Kindreich again getting the starting nod on the mound. Kindreich enters with an 8-2 record and 0.78 ERA, as well as an astounding streak of not allowing a hit in his last 36? innings pitched. A returning first-team all-state pitcher, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has five no-hitters this season after taking his game up a notch.
“Obviously he’s on a roll right now and he’s throwing the ball as well as anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Crater head coach Jay Campbell, in his 13th season at the helm. “We’re very confident in him and his abilities. He feels good, he wants the start and he’s going to be more than ready for the opportunity.”
Kindreich has allowed only seven earned runs (nine overall) in 62? innings. He’s given up 11 hits with 19 walks, three hit batter and 140 strikeouts.
In last year’s meeting with Crescent Valley, Kindreich limited the potent Raiders to five hits in 5? innings with 10 strikeouts, one walk and one hit batter before being pulled at 84 pitches so he could be available to pitch in the title game. His surrendered a home run to Taylor Holder on his final pitch before he knew he was about to exit.
“Last year against Crater we didn’t play good defense starting out,” said Starwalt. “Going against Larson, we scored four runs and hit OK but we spotted them eight runs right at the beginning of the game. That’s a pretty big hill to climb against anybody, and then going against one of the best arms in state doesn’t make it any easier.”
Still, Starwalt believes that having about half his starting lineup back from that game will be a benefit come Saturday.
“I think it helps just from a standpoint of about five or six of our guys have stood in the box against him and they know what to expect,” said the coach. “Obviously he’s a year older and certainly better than last year, but it’s better than having not faced him overall.”
“We had a little bit of success — not a lot — but I think it gives us a little bit of confidence knowing we can hit him,” added Starwalt. “But at the same time it’s kind of like facing Clayton Kershaw the high school version, even if you hit him before we’re still going to have scrap together runs to be successful because he can just come back and shut you down the second time around.”
Kindreich’s counterpart on the mound for Crescent Valley stands to be either senior Briley Knight (8-0, 1.11 ERA) or junior Ethan Krupp (5-0, 2.40 ERA). Both right-handers are similar in their approach, although Knight has shown a little more finishing ability (102 strikeouts in 57 innings) than Krupp (60 strikeouts in 43 innings). Holder, who earned a 7-6 win over Churchill in Tuesday’s semifinals, is only available for 25 pitches Saturday but the sophomore has been sensational in posting an 8-2 record and 1.28 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 60 innings.
Starwalt said the prevailing factor could be a decision in going with the strongest defense he could put out, which would mean putting Knight at shortstop and giving the ball to Krupp, but it’s hard to imagine the Utah-bound Knight not getting the call given his considerable talents.
“I think we have a really special player on our team (in Kindreich) but they also have a really special player in Briley Knight,” Campbell said of the 2017 first-team all-state catcher and two-time Mid-Willamette Conference player of the year. “Not only is he probably one of the best hitters in the state at any level, he’s also a competitor on the mound and has an ability to give people problems with him being so tough mentally.”
Knight hit two home runs against Churchill and enters the championship game batting .495 with 12 home runs, 12 doubles and two triples. Junior Ben Leid is batting .424 with 10 doubles, three triples and two homers and Holder is hitting .371 with seven doubles, five triples and two homers. Seniors Connor Spevacek, Nathan Lach and Kyle Killen also spark a Crescent Valley lineup that averages 7.9 runs per game against 2.8 allowed.
Games have been considerably closer for the Raiders once they got out of the MWC schedule, losing 5-4 to Class 6A West Albany before sweeping 6A South Salem (7-3 and 6-4) and opening the playoffs with wins over Marist (7-0), Corvallis (3-2) and Churchill (7-6).
“It’s great to win 28 games but only a handful I thought we had a chance to lose,” said Starwalt. “Now that we’re in the playoffs, every game has been a nail-biter and really, really fun, and you realize how one little mistake here and there can just change a ballgame.”
“When you know you’re in for a fight,” he added, “I think that really helps versus having high expectations of going out and dominating. We just know that’s not the way it’s going to be Saturday. If we don’t claw and fight for runs then we’re going to be in trouble.”
Run support hasn’t been a prevailing factor for Kindreich in the latter part of the season, but Campbell certainly would like to see the numbers come up on Saturday to make things a little easier on the standout southpaw.
“I think we’ve become accustomed to it sometimes,” Campbell said of Kindreich’s shutdown efforts, “and offensively we think we only have to score a run or two when he’s on the mound, and we’ve got to change that mentality a little bit. In state championship games anything can happen so we’ve got to score as many as we can.”
Kindreich homered last year against Crescent Valley and reached base in four of his five at-bats, scoring three times to go with two RBIs. He entered the playoffs batting .505 with 43 runs and 25 RBIs, sporting 15 doubles, three triples and two home runs.
Senior third baseman Trae Frodge has helped spur the offense along, batting .481 with 29 runs and 36 RBIs to go with 12 doubles, two triples and five home runs. Senior shortstop Nick Bastendorff entered the playoffs batting .417 with 31 runs and 23 RBIs to go with six doubles, two triples and two home runs.
Overall, though, it’s been a committee approach at the plate for Crater with senior Ryan Kulpa, juniors Blake Hollingsworth and Garrett Dance and sophomores Trever Davis and Andy Lacey each coming through with key efforts. The Comets are averaging 7.8 runs against 3.4 allowed.
“We don’t look staggering during in-and-out (warm-ups) and we don’t have flashy numbers or anything like that,” said Campbell, “but they’re just kind of a resilient group and they’re competitive and they kind of take that line of just being a team that can grind out wins. I think that was a perfect example on Tuesday (in a 5-4 comeback win over Bend). It wasn’t pretty and we weren’t playing very well but we just found a way. Guys refused to make an out there in the sixth inning and found a way to scrape and claw and get a win. That’s what these guys have been able to do all year.”
And, really, that’s all the Comets will be trying to do Saturday.
“We’re just enjoying each other’s company and hopefully creating a big memory come Saturday,” said Campbell. “We’re just trying to stay in the moment, not change too much and keep grinding away and find a way to win one more game.”
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry