Spanish Fork On The Rise
Utah high school makes its mark
Spanish Fork (Utah) High has won three state titles in the last five years and been trying to get through the door to national recognition. Like any other program in a non-traditional state, the Dons have had factors working against them. But if any school can find a way to push through, it's one in the town of Spanish Fork.
"It was once said, by Paul Harvey on a syndicated radio show, there's more baseball played per capita in Spanish Fork than anywhere in the country," head coach Jim Nelson said. "They just like to play. Kids that have been cut from the high school team still play in the community. We take our baseball seriously."
Now others will be taking Spanish Fork seriously. The Dons have seen some time in the postseason rankings in recent years, but have surged into the Top 10 after a great start to the 2011 season. After a 6-1 start in Utah, they traveled to Scottsdale, Ariz. to play in the challenging Big League Dugout Invitational. They won their first game handily, defeating Montclair Prep of Van Nuys, Calif. 11-3. The second game presented the Dons' first challenge, as they matched up against Horizon High of Scottsdale, the host of the tournament and perennial contender in Arizona.
"That was the one we were looking forward to," Nelson said. "We thought playing under the lights, we'd throw our big guy."
The Dons' big guy is Kayden Porter, a junior righthander who can reach the mid 90s with his fastball and snap off a promising curveball. Porter nearly went the distance, coming out with one out in the seventh. He struck out eight and surrendered five runs on eight hits and three walks. It may not have been a spectacular outing, but he gave enough for the Dons to win 7-5. Catcher Jarrett Jarvis led the offense that game, going 4-for-4 with a home run, double and two RBIs.
"We knew it would be a real dogfight," Nelson said. "We jumped on them early and hung on at the end. They battled. They're a well-coached, discplined team. That was a big confidence builder for us."
Spanish Fork slipped in its third game, falling to Forsyth Country Day School (Lewisville, N.C.) 3-1, but had already wrapped up its pool and was in the semifinals.
"It's a standard, quality Spanish Fork team, like always," an American League area scout said. "They play the game well. They just run country-boy athletes out there and they play the game right. It's a good program and a good team again."
The Dons took down Regis Jesuit High (Aurora, Colo.) for a trip to the championship game against a program with plenty of national exposure—Las Vegas' Bishop Gorman High. Spanish Fork prevailed, 3-2, to capture the tournament title and put an exclamation point on its national credentials. Jarvis was named MVP of the event and the Dons returned to Utah with a goal crossed off their list.
"Jarvis is the heart of our team," Nelson said. "He plays the game all out, all the time. Our goal was to prove we could play against that competition. We had a great experience."
Programmed To Succeed
Spanish Fork's success has been the product of many people putting in hard work and showing patience. At the top there is Nelson, who is actually better known as Coach Shoe, and his brother Jeff, or Coach White. Coach Shoe's nickname actually started as "Shoo" because his older, and bigger, cousins would always try to shoo him away from their various pick-up games. It later developed into shoe because he played a lot of sports and would always have a pair of gym shoes. Coach Shoe takes responsibility for his brother's nickname.
"I've always been a big, huge Yankees fan," Coach Shoe said. "There was a little lefty named Whitey Ford. My brother was a little lefthander so I gave him the name Whitey and it eventually developed into Coach White."
Using the players' desire to play, the coaches are able to run an offseason program that helps keep up Spanish Fork's reputation for developing pitchers.
"They throw and they throw a lot," Nelson said. "They build a lot of arm strength. We have a 10 to 12 game schedule in the fall that is used mostly for instruction. We have a throwing program in the fall and winter workouts after Christmas."
Nelson is in his 31st season with Spanish Fork and has seen over 75 players go on to play at the next level. That number is going to continue to grow as he currently has two players that have committed to play in college and others receiving interest. Last season, the Dons had Adam Duke, who was considered a prospect to go in the first five rounds of the 2010 draft. But questions about his health and commitment to Oregon State dropped him to the 16th round, where the Red Sox selected him, but were unable to sign him.
Porter is next in a long line of successful Spanish Fork pitchers and he has taken advantage of knowing Duke. "He's helped with all the stuff I'm going through right now because I watched him do the same thing," Porter said.
Having arms like Duke and Porter in a rotation would put any team on the map, but Porter wasn't always the pitcher he is now.
"When he was a freshman, it wasn't uncommon for him to walk 10 or 12 guys," Nelson said. "Last year his command got a little better. He was our No. 3 for 4 guy, but he would still go deep into counts a lot. This year, the improvement has been as much the mind as it has physically. He's slowing himself down and really maturing, realizing we don't have to throw the ball by guys."
A lot can happen between now and June 2012, but Porter is already flashing the stuff seen in pitchers that go in the first round.
The love for baseball in the town plays a role in the talent level, but Nelson also credits instructors outside of his program. The MountainWest Baseball Academy is located in South Jordan, about 40 miles to the north. Nelson and the staff there have a relationship seldom seen between high school and travel programs.
"They run their program to support the high school teams, not fight them," Nelson said.
The MoutainWest Academy has been around since 1984 and its owner, Bob Keyes, has worked with high school programs for over 25 years. Keyes and his staff organize a summer league every year for the schools. A couple times each summer, they break away from the schedule and take a team of players to various national events, but Keyes stresses that the priority is in helping the high school programs.
"When we break away for something like the 16U Championships or Team USA, we're doing it in addition to the high school program, not at the expense of," Keyes said. "We're a little different than the big club outfits where they just take their team and are gone for the summer. Our kids play with their high schools in the summer and then we'll have maybe have three events. It's not the norm, but it's worked well here."
Porter was playing for the MountainWest team in September of last year when he nailed down an invitation to USA Baseball's 18U trials. Opportunities like that have helped players in Utah develop. The dedication to the game is already there, but continued exposure has brought on a rise in talent.
"I encourage them to get involved in as many things like that as possible," Nelson said. "Once you get a kid out there that does well, people come looking."
Spanish Fork has the ingredients to continue producing talent and winning teams. Not all of the players will continue with careers in baseball, as many will go on Mormon missions, but Nelson believes that helps with the success.
"These kids are outstanding young men," he said. "High school baseball is not a means to a college or pro career for them. If they're afforded the opportunity, fine. There's bigger and better things in life than just being the best baseball player."
Jarvis is one of those that will go on a mission rather than playing in college, for now at least. But that's well down the road. In the meantime, Jarvis and his teammates are focused on winning a third-straight state championship and finishing Spanish Fork's main goal of simply getting better.
"The kids are already hard workers, we're dedicated," Jarvis said. "We're expected to stay as a team. If we don't do well, it's because we start thinking we're good. We have to stay humble."