Isaac Hill hit an astounding 10 home runs over 18 games for Hidden Valley this spring.
Chances are, the only one folks in Grants Pass will be talking about is the last one.
Hill, a junior on the Mustangs’ baseball team and an Oregon State recruit, took a 1-0 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the last inning over the fence to left-center. The walk-off grand slam, in Saturday’s 5-2 win over La Grande, capped Hidden Valley’s undefeated season and gave the Mustangs the 4A culminating week state championship.
“He hit that thing to the moon,” Hidden Valley head coach Mark Vidlak exclaimed. “Off the bat it was gone.”
Eight teams started the culminating week in the 4A bracket, but by Saturday only La Grande and Hidden Valley, winners of two games each, remained. La Grande had tasted defeat only once on the season, to 5A Pendleton (15-3), a loss it avenged in its last regular season game. Hidden Valley was undefeated. No team had come closer to the Mustangs than three runs through 17 games.
Though it won’t be recognized officially by the OSAA, La Grande was looking for its first 4A title since 2017 in its third trip to the final game in four years (excluding the 2020 Covid-canceled year). Hidden Valley was in its first state championship game since its only other appearance in 2012. The Mustangs made the state semifinals in 2019.
The game, played at North Marion’s field, was a classic. Each team had an outstanding hurler on the mound, Riley Miller for La Grande; Nate Vidlak for Hidden Valley. Though both offenses were potent, runs would be at a premium.
La Grande (14-2) had a shot to get on the board first in the top of the opening frame. Tiger head coach Parker McKinley sent Payton Cooper, his fastest runner, on a two-out line drive single to right, but sophomore Daniel Iwamizu made a fantastic throw to nail him at home.
Two innings later, Hidden Valley dented the scoreboard, plating a solo run versus Miller on Vidlak’s single. The score remained 1-0 Hidden Valley through five innings as both starters out up goose egg after goose egg. Miller gave up just three hits in 6+ innings. Vidlak surrendered just four knocks in 6.2 innings.
In the top of the sixth, La Grande pushed across two unearned runs, benefiting from two Hidden Valley errors.
In the bottom of the frame, Cooper, playing center, threw out the tying run at the plate for the final out of the inning.
“It was a medium fly ball,” McKinley observed. “Payton has a really good arm and has been accurate with his throws all year. He came through the ball. Cole Jorgensen received it well and put the tag on him.”
“When we got those two across, I felt like we were in a position to win,” McKinley added. “Then when we throw the kid out, we needed just three more outs….”
Hidden Valley coach Vidlak said that having the tying run cut down at the plate did not impact his team in a negative way.
We talk a lot about doing the ‘next most important thing,’” he explained. “The next most important thing was to keep it a one-run game.”
Nate Vidlak got the first two outs in the top of the seventh, but had to come off the mound because of pitch count. He finished with 13 strike outs and no walks. Vidlak finished the year with just one earned run over 41 innings of work, an earned run average of 0.17.
A Hidden Valley reliever got the final out, sending the Mustangs to the bottom of the last needing one run to tie and two to win.
Before the bottom of the seventh began, Coach Vidlak brought his team together for one last talk.
He told them, “Winners find a way to win. Find a way. If you get a baserunner we’ll win.”
Hidden Valley’s players were determined to find a way.
This is everything they’d been working for their entire lives, since the eight juniors on the roster started playing baseball together at age eight..
The winning rally started with ball four on a 3-2 count. Hidden Valley’s next hitter walked as well. Coach McKinley made a pitching change with the count 1-0 on the ensuing batter. The batter sacrificed, moving runners to second and third with one out. La Grande then walked Nate Vidlak, who had been 2-for-3 and was hitting .569 on the year, to load the bases and set up a force at every base. Hidden Valley’s next batter struck out, setting the stage for Hill to deliver the two-out shot heard round the state.
“We knew what kind of hitter was standing in the box,” McKinley said.
Hill was 0-for-3 at the time and had made an error in the field that helped La Grande score its runs.
“Riley had kept his bat quiet all game,” McKinley explained. “But with a 1-0 count and the bases loaded, we had to throw a fastball. We left it over the plate.”
As the ball left the bat for its final resting place over the fence in left-center, Coach Vidlak knew that his team had won the 4A title, but found it hard to comprehend at the same time.
“It was real but not real,” he said. “To put so much work in, it felt like a summation of everything. I had a great feeling of excitement and pride for our kids, our families and our community. To win it that way was unique and special. I’ll always remember that.”
“I’m also super proud of Isaac,” he continued. “He left the adversity behind and lived in the moment.”
The celebration was a mix of laughter, tears, emotional exuberance and sighs of relief.
“This is all they’ve dreamed about since they were little boys,” Coach Vidlak said
“At the end of the day somebody is going to come out on top and somebody is not,” McKinley said. “It was a really, really good baseball game for everybody involved. Both teams did fantastic. You get to that game and want it to be the most competitive it can be. All of those things happened. It certainly felt like a state championship game.”
“I’m really proud to be a part of 4A baseball and the way our coaches and programs tried to so things well,” McKinley continued. “The grind of this season was incredible. From trying to get arms in shape during football season to the rush and stress of the season, hats off to every single program in the state to be able to work through what we had to work through. Every program did everything they could. I’m so proud of the kids, parents and everybody for making this happen.”