Baldwin, Tigers seek league, state title in baseball

GRAND JUNCTION COACH KYLE RUSH knows it’s going to be tough for the Tigers to win a fifth consecutive Southwestern League baseball title, but he’s counting on a group of veterans and newcomers.

Grand Junction High School has won the past four Southwestern League baseball titles, and the Tigers don’t plan on leaving the top of the hill this season.

The Tigers again are putting what looks to be a competitive team on the field despite losing seven seniors from last year’s state qualifying team.

“Our intent is to never be senior-dominated, and if it is, we better be good,” Grand Junction coach Kyle Rush said with a laugh. “We set it up to where we just play ball, young or old.”

This year’s team has five seniors, which include returning All-SWL players Geoff Baldwin and Conner Dixon, but also a group of younger players who will play a bigger role for the Tigers, like juniors Tim Gastineau, Tyler Stanford, Aaron Berk and Jayke Brock. 

One of the elder statesmen of the Tigers is Baldwin, who has signed to play for the University of Nebraska next spring. Baldwin was selected to the All-SWL team his first three years, including earning SWL honorable mention as a pitcher his freshman year. The 6-foot-5 lefty has played on some very good Tigers teams, but said this team can be the best in his career.

“Coming in, this is the best team I have been a part of,” Baldwin said. “The chemistry is way better than any team I have been on. We have a lot of senior leadership and I feel like we can do something this year.”

There are certainly some new faces on this year’s team. For most of Baldwin’s career, he hit behind players like Bubba Higgins, Joe Arnold and Ross Koepsell, all of whom have graduated.

In their place are Gastineau, Brock and sophomore Charlie Willett. Baldwin said although there are some starters without a lot of varsity playing time, he is confident in what they bring to the field.

“Those are kids coming in that we knew could play,” Baldwin said. “I felt like in the past there have been a lot of individuals on the team, but this year, everyone really respects each other and everyone knows their place on this team. That is what is going to separate this team.”

The first three hitters have done a good job getting on base and have already set up Baldwin to drive them in. Against Coronado in the Bill Fanning Classic, Baldwin had six RBI, including a two-run home run and a three-run home run. Teams have had to pitch to Baldwin because the
Tigers have another power hitter, Berk, hitting behind him.

“If it wasn’t for Aaron Berk, I might not see pitches this entire year,” Baldwin said. “He is a great hitter and having a guy like that behind me is huge.”

Berk had a good sophomore campaign as a designated hitter, but this year he’s taken over as the starting catcher after the graduation of Koepsell.

“He has big shoes to fill and he is doing well,” Rush said. “He will continue to get more comfortable with our pitchers and they’ll get more comfortable with him.”

The Tigers’ pitching staff is anchored by Dixon, with Stanford, Charlie Riecks and Jesse Smith all seeing action. Baldwin will close for the Tigers.

“We have a lot of guys that can throw,” Rush said. “We don’t have anyone that is going to dominate, but if they can hit their spots and we play defense behind them, we’ll be OK.”

Grand Junction began the season 2-0 in the Bill Fanning Classic, outscoring its opponents 43-4 before traveling to the Front Range this week to play Pueblo South, Pueblo West and Rangeview.

“We want to be good and to win state is the ultimate goal, but our league is good,” Rush said.

“We’ll have to battle just to get out of the SWL.”


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