ELKO – Last season, the Elko baseball team rode a young, unknown squad all the way to the state tournament.
Inexperience was seen as the Indians’ weakness in the early going last year, now experience seems to be Elko’s biggest asset.
Elko overcame graduating 10 players from its 2016 regional championship team – finishing as the 2017 regional runner-up and qualifying for state for the third year in a row.
“Last year, we kind of changed our approach to coaching the team. They were so young that we knew they would mistakes and didn’t want to get on them too much when they did. We wanted them to learn and grow and keep their confidence,” said Elko coach Shane Gilligan.
After entering the season with an underdog label, Elko now has a bull’s-eye painted on its collective back.
“I think we surprised some people last year. The kids played hard and they won a lot of close games,” Gilligan said. “We’re going to get everyone’s best shot this year. There are a lot of expectations for us to do well.”
He said the team has not put too much pressure on itself to meet the lofty goals, rather placing an emphasis on “competing every pitch.”
“Last season, I think there were a lot of times that the younger kids really looked to Alec Wall and fed off him, waiting for him to make a big play to get them going. He was a great leader defensively behind the plate and with everything we did, and he made some huge hits,” Gilligan said. “Now, the kids want to be that guy. They want to be the one to step up and make the big play. When everyone has that mindset, you’re going to be way better off.”
While Elko will return nearly its entire roster, the loss of Wall is one that cannot be overstated.
Wall began his senior campaign with a bang, hitting a two-run, walk-off homer in the Indians’ first league contest and home opener against Dayton in an 11-9 victory on March 17.
He also provided a thrilling crank in the first meeting against Spring Creek on March 28 at Upper Kump Field.
Down to Elko’s final strike in the bottom of the seventh inning and trailing 6-5, Wall took a 1-2 pitch for a deep ride, blasting the game-tying solo crank off the scoreboard in left field – setting the stage for a 1st-Team All-North and 2nd-Team All-State selection.
Wall hit .409 and led the Indians with 47 hits and 32 RBIs, which tied for fifth in the 3A North.
He smacked 10 doubles, three triples and two home runs – leading Elko in every extra-base hit category.
He led the team in on-base percentage (.507), slugging percentage (.583) and on-base, plus slugging (OPS) at 1.090.
All-time, Wall placed his name in the annals of Elko history – finishing ninth in RBIs and ninth in hits for a single season.
Wall was great defensively behind the plate, possessing the ability to make difficult stops on balls in the dirt and throw down baserunners on attempted steals.
Elko also graduated right fielder Carlos Loera, who finished fourth on the team with 45 putouts.
He hit .305, drove in 16 runs and nailed five extra-base hits with four doubles – smacking his only home run of the year at the regional tournament in South Tahoe.
Loera tied for third on the team with 11 stolen bases.
During his senior season, pinch runner Josh Jonas also proved to be a force on the bases for the Indians – finishing second on the roster with 13 swipes.
One Loera graduated, another is back for his senior year.
Julian Loera continued his growth on the mound for the Indians during his junior season and earned 1st-Team All-League and 2nd-Team All-State honors.
He posted a 2.30 earned-run average and tied for the league high in victories with nine, matching Fallon senior and league MVP Alex Mendez.
He struck out a team-best 40 batters against 19 walks in 67 innings pitched.
Loera does not just shut down opposing hitters; he can whack the ball as well off of opposing pitchers.
He batted .397 and finished second behind Wall for the team lead with two triples and nine doubles, driving in 16 runs.
The Indians had two players who earned 2nd-Team All-League selections, then-junior Kamren Backherms and then-sophomore Cooper Jones.
Backherms tied Julian Loera for second on the team with nine doubles and a triple, finishing second outright with 27 RBIs.
He hit .348 and ranked second behind Wall with 40 hits on the season, smacking his lone home run of the season in Elko’s 3-1 victory over South Tahoe in the 3A North regional tournament opener, tying for third on the team with one triple.
Backherms not only led the team in putouts, his 266 recorded outs at first base also set a single-season record for the Indians.
His 34 runs scored ranked second on the team and fifth in the 3A North.
Jones made numerous plays on balls after covering large areas in center field, his .988 fielding percentage leading the team.
Offensively, he used his jets to produce runs and advance along the bases.
He led the 3A North with 22 stolen bases, which ranked second all-time for a single season in school history.
Leading the team with 36 runs scored, Jones ranked one spot above Backherms for fourth place in the 3A North standings.
He hit .315 with five doubles and a triple, tying for third on the team with 22 RBIs and finishing fourth on the roster with 35 hits.
The Indians had three players earn honorable mentions in the 3A North awards: then-sophomore Kaleb Martinez, then-freshman Colby Tiner and then- junior Gavin Byington.
After suffering an ACL tear during the football preseason, Tiner is back and should be released for competitive action in the next couple weeks.
As a ninth grader, he led the Indians in innings pitched with 67-1/3, also leading the team with a 2.29 ERA.
He finished second on the staff and tied for fourth in the 3A North with seven wins, compared to three losses, and provided some of the most impressive and memorable outings of the season for the Indians.
In a nine-inning, complete-game performance in a 7-6 Elko win on April 22 in Truckee – Tiner tossed seven scoreless innings (five one-two-three frames) and got through the game on 106 pitches – marking the longest outing of any pitcher under a Gilligan-coached team, despite having to contend with the new pitch-count limit.
Gilligan gave the ball to Tiner for Elko’s first-round regional tournament game, and he turned in a complete-game, one-run effort in the Indians’ 3-1 win over the Vikings.
Tiner received the ball once again in Elko’s win-or-go-home, losers’-bracket elimination contest against Fallon, allowing just one unearned run on four hits over four innings before completing his 33-allotted outs for the tournament – a game in which Julian Loera closed and Elko won 4-1 to book the Indians’ third-consecutive trip to the state tournament.
Martinez led the Indians with a .429 batting average, tying Jones for third on the team with 22 runs.
He finished fifth on the team with 34 hits and seven doubles, tying for third with a triple.
Martinez possesses some of the most natural baseball hands at third base.
Against Dayton in the bottom of the seventh inning and the Indians clinging to a 5-3 lead in Elko’s second game of the regional tourney, the Dust Devils earned a leadoff walk by senior Jesse Schmidt.
Sophomore Justin Schmidt served as the tying run at the plate, and he drilled a line-drive rocket down the line at third base.
Martinez laid out and made an all-world catch, got to his feet and threw all the way across the diamond to double off Jesse Schmidt at first base to end the game and send the Dust Devils to the loser’s bracket.
He also served as a pitching ace for the Indians during the tourney.
In 11 innings at regionals against the Spartans, Martinez gave up one run (none earned) on three total hits.
At the plate, he finished 8-for-19 (.421) with three doubles and drove in eight runs in Elko’s six games at regionals.
Like Backherms, Byington also turned in a record-setting season on the defensive side of the ball.
He recorded a single-season benchmark with 109 assists from his position at shortstop, recording 44 putouts by himself.
Byington hit .314 for the season, finishing third on the team with 38 hits and tying for third with 33 runs scored.
He tied for fourth on the roster with a triple and ranked fourth with eight doubles, finishing fifth with 21 RBIs.
On the bases, he tied for third on the team with 11 steals.
Elko will bring back senior Ryan Wickersham, who overcame a leg injury last season, closing the year strong – hitting .389 with 15 RBIs and seven doubles – his two-RBI double in the first regional final against Spring Creek accounting for the Indians’ 9-7 victory.
Junior Austyn Marin will return at second base for the Indians, splitting time with Tiner at the position when the other is on the mound.
Marin hit .311 as a sophomore and drove in 14 runs, finishing with two doubles.
As a sophomore, Brycen Kelly finished with a 3-2 record on the mound for Elko, closing with a 4.33 ERA and was second on the team with 29 strikeouts, and he is poised to be a major factor in the rotation during his junior season – likely seeing time in the outfield as well.
Senior Antawn Valtierra has been strapped with the task or replacing Wall behind the plate, but Gilligan does not want Valtierra to feel the need to duplicate Wall’s production.
“I don’t want Antawn to feel like has to be like Wall. Wall was a four-year varsity player and one of the best defensive catchers I have ever seen in high school,” Gilligan said. “We have to let Antawn build his own identity and play the position his way. He has talent with the bat too, and I think he will only get better with more ABs.”
Elko also returns junior Christian Quintana, who was an athletic weapon in left field before breaking his hand on a slide.
“We are very competitive in left and right field. I think we have quite a few guys we can plug into those positions, depending on what we are trying to do and who has the hot bats,” Gilligan said. “We are deeper on the mound this year also. I think we have a number of kids who can give us quality innings.”
The Indians will kick off their season at 5 p.m. Friday against Eagle (Idaho) at Middleton High School.