Thurston repeated as 5A baseball champion Saturday with a 2-0 win over West Albany at PK Park.
Thurston repeated as 5A baseball champion Saturday with a 2-0 win over West Albany at PK Park.

EUGENE -- Grady Saunders wanted the ball "more than anything" Saturday afternoon with a state championship on the line.

Big-game situations are nothing new for the Thurston sophomore, who was making his fourth postseason pitching start as the Colts tried to become repeat state title winners.

Saunders was far from perfect but he and his teammates got the job done. Thurston scored two early runs then saw its pitching and defense finish the job and in a 2-0 win against West Albany in the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 5A baseball state title game at PK Park.

Saunders, the hero of last year's 2-1 walk-off victory over West with an eighth-inning, inside-the-park home run in the eighth inning, finished Saturday allowing three hits and four walks with four strikeouts and two throwing errors before being relieved by Eli Crist with one out in the seventh.

"Pitching is what I do and it's my favorite part of the game," said Saunders, who also had two hits at the plate.

Saunders, a right-hander, exited the mound in the seventh after hitting a batter and getting a strikeout. Crist, who was playing third base, came to the mound and switched spots with Saunders. Crist then drew a grounder to third that the Colts nearly turned into a game-finishing double play. But a popup in foul territory on the third base side in the next at-bat ended it, giving Thurston (28-3) its third state championship in program history.

Colts coach Dennis Minium said he would like to say his team didn't feel the pressure of being the defending champion this season. But he was sure of one thing.

"They play really well with a big target on their back and they're going to make somebody beat us, for sure," Minium said.

West Albany's Lukas Hews, one of two pitching aces for the Bulldogs (26-4), went the distance. The senior righty gave up five hits, two earned runs and three walks with five strikeouts. Saunders and Hews were the Moda Health players of the game.

Thurston scored twice in the bottom of the first on a walk, one of Brock Johnson's two bunt singles, Crist's sacrifice fly and a Saunders RBI single. West Albany threatened with two runners on in each of the first two innings but came up empty. Saunders picked off Aiden Metzker at first after allowing a two-out single in the third.

The defenses were kept busy as at least one runner reached base every half-inning.

West got a runner to second with one out in the fifth on an Austin Thompson walk and Sawyer Kasten sacrifice bunt. But that was followed by an infield popup and a grounder. In the bottom half, Thurston's Kyle Miller walked and stole second but his teammates couldn't bring him home.

In the sixth, West's Mason Linton singled up the middle with two outs then went to second on Saunders' second error on a pickoff throw to first. A walk to Kane Damon followed by a wild pitch put runners at second and third. But a grounder scooped up and delivered to first by Thurston second baseman David Macdonald led to another zero on the board for the Bulldogs.

"Just didn't come up with that hit when we needed it," West coach Marty Johnston said. "We had guys on base. We had opportunities to win against a good team. If you don't take advantage of opportunities, the few that you get, that's the reason you get what you get."

The Bulldogs lost five players to graduation last spring but found a way to get back to the title game with a playoff run that included one-run wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals.

"I told a lot of people, this group did a good job of being comfortable in uncomfortable situations, and it almost became their normal," Johnston said. "To watch them execute and win games in that manner is a lot of fun."

The game was a clean one defensively outside Saunders' two errant throws to first. 

"It's definitely the best defense in the state," Saunders said of the group behind him. "Every time I go on the mound I know guys are going to track balls down and do the best they can."

Minium added of the defense: "They've been really good. We make them hit the ball in certain situations. Our defense has been really solid. Can't say enough. They came out and competed and did their job today."

Thurston's only losses on the season came against 6A Sheldon, Crismon of Arizona and Mullen of Colorado. West Albany lost twice to Crescent Valley in Mid-Willamette Conference play and once to Wilsonville

Saturday marked the fifth straight OSAA tournament that the Mid-Willamette had a team in the championship game. Central (2019) and Crescent Valley (2022) got wins for the conference in that stretch. Lebanon, another Mid-Willamette school, was state runner-up in 2022.