Welcome back, Kody Reynolds.
After missing the last part of the regular season with a broken finger, the freshman from McQueen High School in Reno made his return to the Western Nevada College lineup in time for the Region 18 Tournament baseball championship on Saturday.
The timing couldnâ€™t have been better for the Wildcats. Reynolds hit a tie-breaking solo homer in the seventh inning to carry the Wildcats past host Salt Lake, 8-4, in a successful defense of their region title.
Reynoldsâ€™ homer over the left-field fence at Cate Field in West Jordan, Utah, broke a 3-3 tie, which was created when Salt Lake scored a run in the top of the inning. It was only the second homer of the season for Reynolds, who had been out for four weeks.
â€œThe coaches thought with the wind blowing out to left, we just felt like he had a chance to hit the ball over the fence,â€ said WNC coach D.J. Whittemore.
A grand slam later in the seventh inning by Jake Bennett, his second homer in as many days, gave the Wildcats a five-run cushion. Bennettâ€™s fifth homer of the season was preceded by a base hit from Brandon Lapointe and walks to Christian Stolo and Connor Klein.
Afterward, Bennett was named the tournamentâ€™s most valuable player.
The Wildcats (39-16) won their fourth Region 18 title and make will their fifth appearance in the Western District Tournament in nine years. Theyâ€™ll join host South Mountain of Phoenix, Cochise (Ariz.) and the Region 9 winner at the district tournament May 15-17.
â€œIt was an incredible effort by the players and this team,â€ Whittemore said. â€œBeing the first time to ever win back-to-back regional titles is really incomprehensible how difficult that is. When you have so many new faces this year, it speaks volumes on the job our assistant coaches do in developing our players.â€
WNC swept through the region tournament without a loss for the second straight year.
The Wildcats struck first in the opening frame as Stolo doubled to the fence in left field and Klein followed with a RBI double down the right-field line. Bennett pushed Klein to third base with his groundout to second base, and Klein came home for a 2-0 Wildcat lead when Joey Crunkiltonâ€™s ground ball was mishandled by second baseman Taylor Snyder.
Wildcats starting pitcher Rayne Raven ran into trouble after striking out Garrett Bushman to start the third inning. Raven began to struggle with the strike zone, walking Robert Grilli for the second time. Then, Colton Barkdull and Zach Watts sent pitches early in the count into the outfield for base hits. Wattsâ€™ base hit to left scored Grilli. Raven walked the next two hitters on eight pitches to force in Barkdull to tie the score at 2 and end Ravenâ€™s start.
Raven was pitching with a torn labrum to his nonthrowing shoulder.
â€œIt was a gutsy performance by him, and he gave us what he could,â€ Whittemore said.
Spencer Greer (7-4) relieved Raven and fanned Snyder on three pitches for the second out. Reynoldsâ€™ spectacular grab, where he reached over the fence to pull in a foul ball hit by Nick Urban, ended the rally with the bases loaded.
â€œGreer pitching out of a bases-loaded jam was the difference in the game,â€ Whittemore said. â€œThis was two years in the making and from hard work on his part.â€
After a rough start, Salt Lakeâ€™s Anthony Dixon found his rhythm, retiring seven Wildcats in a row.
However, the Wildcats got back to business offensively in the fourth. A leadoff double to right center by Bennett ended Dixonâ€™s stretch of dominance. After a passed ball allowed Bennett to go to third base, Crunkilton singled past shortstop Grilli into center field, the Wildcatsâ€™ first base hit, scoring the go-ahead run. Grilli caught a line drive off the bat of Alex Fife and doubled off Crunkilton, who was running with the pitch, for two quick outs. Following a base hit to right by Conor Harber, Watts took away an extra-base hit from Reynolds and another Wildcat run with an over-the-shoulder catch in center field.
Salt Lake put a runner on second base with two outs in the fifth and sixth innings. Each time, Greer was up to the challenge. In the fifth, he and shortstop Tony Roque combined to pick off Watts, the Wildcatsâ€™ second of the game. In the sixth, with Snyder on second base after an infield error and a groundout, Greer struck out Caleb Summerhays with a third-strike curveball.
The Bruins tied the score again with a two-out rally in the seventh inning. Fife nearly made a diving catch of Barkdullâ€™s drive to center, but the ball bounced out of his glove and the Bruin took second base for a double. Watts didnâ€™t leave a runner at second this time, dumping a single into center to plate Barkdull and knot the score at 3.
Greer earned the win with 4 2/3 innings of two-hit relief and six strikeout. Freshman Max Karnos closed out the Wildcat win for the second straight day by working the final two innings. Karnos allowed one hit and one unearned run while fanning two.
Bennett had two of the Wildcatsâ€™ eight hits. He scored two runs and knocked in four. Stolo and Klein also touched home plate twice.
Salt Lake (35-19) began the day by eliminating College of Southern Nevada, 5-4. The Bruins scored twice in the ninth inning to rally for the win.
â€œIt wouldnâ€™t be as fulfilling if we didnâ€™t have to go through a team like Salt Lake to win it,â€ Whittemore said. â€œWhen you play in a competitive conference, itâ€™s awesome and makes it fun and worthwhile.â€
South Mountain hosted WNC to open the 2014 season, winning two of the three games.
South Mountain edged Cochise, last yearâ€™s third-place finisher at the national tournament, 2-1 and 11-10 in 11 innings, to earn the right to host district.
Cochise also qualified for the Western District Tournament and will be joined by the Region 9 Tournament winner from Lamar, Colo.