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A decade in the making: Holy Family baseball steals 4A spotlight and crown

Jun. 1—AIR FORCE ACADEMY — The glory of a state baseball championship may reach its acme in the moments immediately following the final out, but it's the small decisions that make or break a team under pressure.

Holy Family's sprint toward its fourth state crown — and second in Class 4A — on Saturday on Erdle Field culminated by way of a Hail Mary a week earlier, a hitting inferno from senior first baseman Jayden Watts throughout the entire postseason, and a baffling decision from the opposing coach in the early innings of Saturday's matinee.

The Tigers rode a hefty third inning to a 13-6 victory over Pueblo County following an early, disastrous pitching change for the Hornets. In doing so, they earned their first state championship since 2014, when assistant coach Nick Kreutzer was donning the purple and black himself.

"It's the greatest feeling ever," senior first baseman Jayden Watts said. "It doesn't even feel real. I play basketball and, obviously, we fell short there. Winning this filled that void. Winning a state championship is just the greatest feeling. No words can describe it."

Nobody, it seemed, could extinguish Watts' fire during the postseason. After his five-RBI, three-hit performance against the Hornets, he ended his own four-game stint through the playoffs with 14 RBIs, nine hits and seven runs.

His fellow senior, pitcher Cole Kuszak, was the pinnacle of ice under pressure through 5 2/3 innings. He gave up just three earned runs and two walks while striking out seven. He alone outlasted three Pueblo County pitchers.

"I knew Pueblo was a good hitting team," Kuszak said. "They showed it in the last couple games, the last two weekends, so I knew I had to come out, throw well and throw with confidence. Having a strong defense behind me like we have, and having the bats that we have, it was easy to go out and dominate when we got a good lead."

Last weekend, during the second round of the state tournament, head coach Marc Cowell threw the seldom-used Brendan Ward on the mound as a sort of sacrificial lamb against top-seeded Windsor. He only had 14 2/3 innings to his name before that start, but his elite performance vaulted them further in the winner's bracket and, eventually, toward a state crown.

The Tigers and Hornets began the contest even-keeled, meeting each other tit-for-tat with a 2-2 stalemate heading into the top of the third. That's when the Hornets sealed their own fate. Starting pitcher Jonas Chavira, who had put on a solid performance up to that point and hadn't approached any sort of pitch count limit, was pulled from the mound despite giving up no runs in that frame.

Cohen Glenn came in to play cleanup for the Hornets, but instead left them with a huge mess. Holy Family's Britain Fox scored first on a wild pitch before Watts knocked another run in with a line drive to left field.

Glenn then proceeded to walk two more runs home with the bases loaded. The Hornets, after that, called Caulin Pighetti up for a second pitching change in the third frame alone. Isaiah Sandoval, deciding that the Tigers' rally wasn't done yet, sacrificed himself to bring Sam Cannella home before the Hornets finally secured the elusive third out.

"Honestly, it just wasn't letting off the gas pedal," Watts said. "We said, 'Keep on their throats. Keep scoring runs and getting hits.' And we did that."

The Hornets never came close to touching the Tigers after that, falling behind as far as 13-3 heading into the bottom of the seventh before coming up for one last gasp of air. Holy Family stymied Pueblo County's comeback at just three runs before sprinting to the mound in elation.

The Tigers' upperclassmen got them there.

"Seniors, you want to lean on them in a tournament like this, and they were both spectacular," Cowell said. "Jayden, I think the only way you could get him out was — I don't know if you could get him out. And then Cole, he was outstanding on the mound. I think seven strikeouts, kept them guessing, made it hard for them to barrel the baseball. He did everything we wanted of him."