ELKO – Entering the 2019 baseball season, the Elko Indians have a couple challenges in store – both early and long term.
Elko’s goal is to make another appearance in the Division 3A state championship – losing 10-6 to Truckee in the 2018 title game – but the Indians’ schedule is a short-term question mark.
Slated to kick off the season at home at 2 p.m. Friday against North Valleys, the status of Upper Kump Field is up in the air.
Due to large quantities of February snowfall and the upcoming forecast – rain Tuesday and Wednesday and snow on Thursday and Friday – the field may be completely covered with snow, the ground possibly too wet to even play.
“The rain will help melt the snow early in the week, but I don’t think the field can handle any more water,” said Elko coach Shane Gilligan. “We’ll have to see how everything plays out, but there is a good chance we will have to make up the games.”
Last season, the Indians qualified for their fourth-consecutive state tournament and claimed their second regional championship during the span – using a walk-off single by then-sophomore Colby Tiner for a 5-4 victory over Truckee in the 3A North regional final on May 12, 2018, in Fallon.
However, the Wolverines got hot at the right time – beating the Indians twice in the state tournament – winning 8-4 on May 18, 2018, and 10-6 on May 19, 2018, in the state championship.
Elko returns a large portion of it nucleus from last season – including many players who have been on the varsity team since they were freshmen and sophomores.
Of the Indians’ 20-man roster, 11 are seniors – also including six juniors and three sophomores.
“We have quite a few players who will play their third year of varsity baseball and a couple who came up when they were freshman,” Gilligan said. “It’s a talented group of kids. We need to improve our consistency and have the older kids help bring our younger kids along.”
Elko brings back senior Cooper Jones, who was a 1st-Team All-North and 2nd-Team All-State selection as a junior in center field, entering his third full season with the varsity – earning a late-season call-up from the junior varsity team during his freshman year.
In 2018, Jones swiped 30 bags and is now the all-time record holder for a single season in school history – surpassing the previous mark of 28 steals set in 1995 by his dad, Mitch Jones.
He also used hits jets to lead the league with six triples – second all-time for a single season in school history – and turned two more would-be triples into home runs inside the park.
His final homer without the ball leaving the yard came in Elko’s 8-3 victory over Pahrump Valley in the opening round of the 3A state tournament, sending a ball into the right-center field gap and not slowing down until after a head-first slide across home plate.
For the season, Jones hit .359 with 18 RBIs and five doubles, six triples and two home runs.
His 42 hits in 2018 ranked ninth-most for a single season in program history.
The Indians also welcome back senior second baseman Austyn Marin, who notched a 1st-Team All-North selection during his junior campaign.
He stepped up his game to become one of the best hitters in the league, his 11 doubles finishing second on the roster.
His .457 batting average ranked eighth in the 3A North – second for Elko’s roster – and second among second baseman.
The average also served as the 10th-best clip in the history of Elko baseball.
Marin led the Indians with 38 RBIs, only Truckee’s Spencer Edmondson driving in more runs with 39.
Only five Elko hitters have driven in more runs in a year, and Marin’s 48 hits were the sixth-most for the program in a single season.
After moving from California, right fielder and relief pitcher Carter Alvarado played to a 2nd-Team All-North selection as a junior – making notable contributions with his bat, his glove, his arm and his legs.
Alvarado saved a significant number of runs with his ability to track down fly balls with his range – making outstanding plays with diving catches and solid throws to the cut-off man or all the way home.
He fielded the ball at a .911 clip, leading Elko’s outfielders with three double plays.
At the plate, he batted .384 and drove in 18 runs and scored 26 runs of his own, hitting three doubles and a triple.
Once on base, he tied for second on the team with 11 steals.
On the mound, he went 2-2 and allowed 23 runs on 33 hits over 26-1/3 innings, closing the year with the lowest ERA on the staff at 2.12, which ranked second in the 3A North.
Elko’s pitching rotation is an area Gilligan calls one of his team’s biggest strengths.
“We have 12 guys on our roster that we plan on seeing time on the hill. We return two starters – Tiner and (senior) Brycen Kelly,” he said. “We have some quality pitchers returning, (senior) Kaleb Martinez and Carter (Alvarado), and we have a lot of arms to use.”
Last season, Tiner ranked seventh in the league with a 2.61 earned-run average, posting a 6-1 record, tying for second in the league in wins.
He struck out 35 batters against 10 walks and ranked second in Elko’s rotation with a WHIP (walks plus hit per inning pitched) of 1.435 over 53-2/3 innings.
Tiner batted .366 and hit two home runs, closing with 19 RBIs.
When not pitching, Gilligan expects Tiner to split time at second base and shortstop with Marin.
Elko graduated shortstop Gavin Byington – a 2nd-Team All-North selection – no shortstop in the 3A North producing more runs than Byington, who batted .450 with 30 RBIs and scored 34 runs of his own.
His clip at the plate ranked 10th in the league, his runs driven in placing 12th overall.
Byington led the Indians and finished fourth in the 3A North with 12 doubles.
With 11 steals, he tied for second on Elko’s roster.
Byington’s 49 hits were the fifth-most in a single season in program history, and the 99 hits for his career are third-best on the all-time list at Elko.
Kelly finished with a 4-4 mark during his junior season, notching a 3.26 ERA with 19 strikeouts against 18 walks in 38-2/3 innings.
When not on the bump, Gilligan expects Kelly to see the bulk of his defensive time spent at first base.
With the graduation of Kamren Backherms, Elko said goodbye to one of the most-feared hitters in the Division 3A North and a defensive stalwart at the No. 3 position – finishing his career with 1st-Team All-League and 1st-Team All-State honors.
He led the Indians with 56 hits and 14 extra-base knocks (10 doubles, four triples) and racked up a .496 batting average, the second-best clip in the league behind Truckee’s Marcus Bellon’s .522 average.
Backherms’ 36 RBIs ranked second on Elko’s roster and sixth in the league, scoring a team-best 44 runs and placing fourth in the 3A North.
With a .532 one-base percentage, he led the Indians and finished with the sixth-best OBP in the league.
He did plenty of damage with his bat, but he has been a staple of the Elko defense with his glove.
After his school-record 266 putouts at first base as a junior, Backherms retired 246 batters in his senior season, doing so with a league-best .996 fielding percentage and a league-low one error for the year.
For Elko’s all-time annals, his 56 hits placed him second only to Kirk Nylander’s 58 knocks in 1997.
Backherms’ .496 batting average ranks as the sixth-best mark in the history of the program, his 44 runs scored serving as the eighth-best total in a year and his 36 RBIs finishing ninth-best on the all-time list for a season.
During his tenure on the varsity, only three Indians have more hits than Backherms’ 96 knocks for his career.
Martinez pitched 19-2/3 frames, going 3-1 with 12 punchouts and eight walks.
With his bat, he hit .340 with five doubles and drove in 21 runs.
“Kaleb did a great job and looked really good during our scrimmage at Bishop Manogue,” Gilligan said. “When he’s not pitching, he’ll play a lot at third base.”
The Indians’ pitching staff will be without graduated ace Julian Loera, who earned consecutive 1st-Team All-League and 2nd-Team All-State selections.
Loera tied for the league high with seven wins, coming against just one loss.
He threw a roster-high 71 innings, striking out a team-best 38 batters – 10th in the 3A North – against 12 walks.
Loera’s 2.66 ERA ranked seventh in the league.
The final win of Loera’s career came in the first round of the 2018 3A state tournament, allowing one-earned run on eight hits over seven innings of complete-game stuff in the Indians’ 8-3 victory over Pahrump Valley.
In the preliminary 3A state championship, he tossed the Indians to a 6-4 lead before hitting his 33-out limit, Elko unable to extend the final round to a winner-take-all title game with a 10-6 loss to the Wolverines.
Also capable with his bat, he hit .350 with 26 RBIs – smacking seven doubles, three triples and a home run.
Elko’s battery will take on another change, taking place behind the plate.
Graduated Antawn Valtierra finished the season with 121 putouts and 16 assists, committing just three errors in 140 chances – turning two double plays.
Sophomore Luke Blair is expected to put on the mask and catch for the Indians.
“Blair will catch, but junior Jaren Gillespie can see some time behind the plate and Marin can catch too,” Gilligan said.
In left field, senior Christian Quintana will likely take control of the position he played a lot last season.
Graduated Ryan Wickersham – when not playing defense in left field – was often used as a designated hitter, batting .389 with four doubles and driving in 22 runs.
Senior Ronin Rowley joins the baseball team after a lengthy break from the game, and he will serve as a pitcher for the Indians – bringing a lefty arm to the rotation.
“Ronin is a proven asset as far as an athlete, given what he’s done in football and basketball,” Gilligan said. “He brings a lot of competitiveness, will to win and those types of things.”
While Rowley is expected to be used only as a pitcher, the Indians also have other lefty arms in sophomore Jake Zeller and senior Jacob Kath – who also offer left-handed bats.
“It’s nice to have some lefty bats in the lineup, because we don’t typically have those,” Gilligan said. “It’s been a few years since we have had someone hit from that side. We didn’t have anyone bat from that side consistently last year.”
Kath went 2-for-3 with a double last season and drove in four runs in only four plate appearances.
Pitcher: Tiner, Kelly, Alvarado, Martinez, Marin, Rowley, Kath, Zeller, senior Kohl McIntosh, junior Rolando Acosta, sophomore Lincoln Ratliff, junior Cutler Macias.
Catcher: Blair, Gillespie, Marin.
First base: Kelly, Martinez, senior Lupe Ortiz, Kath, junior Max Shurtz.
Second Base: Marin, Tiner, Ratliff, Acosta, senior Lukas Nelms, Macias.
Third base: Martinez, Acosta, Ratliff, Marin.
Shortstop: Tiner, Marin, Macias.
Outfielders: Quintana (left), Jones (center), Alvarado (right) – Kelly, McIntosh, Zeller, junior Race Steensen.
The Indians – weather and field conditions permitting – will kick off the 2019 season and Division 3A North play against the North Valleys Panthers at 2 p.m. Friday, at Upper Kump Field.