ALBUQUERQUE – There was a funky vinegar smell wafting out of a grate in the designated Eunice baseball dugout at the University of New Mexico’s Santa Ana Star Field on Saturday afternoon.
Pungent indeed. But, the smell of success was oh so sweet for the top-seeded Cardinals after they beat third-seeded Capitan 21-3 in Saturday’s state 2A championship game to capture the program’s 18th state title.
That’s the most in New Mexico. And Saturday’s win, coming almost six months after the Cardinals’ football team beat Jal for the state 2A crown, marked the first time Eunice has won a football and baseball championship in the same school year since 1994-95.
Not a bad haul for one blowout victory in five innings at UNM, the site of Eunice’s state championship game defeat at the hands of Texico last year. The Cardinals got it done this time, got that one extra win.
“We always put that as one of our goals,” Eunice head coach Drew Reynolds said. “To be able to finish as a state champion is always great.”
“Oh, it’s amazing,” said Cardinals senior Zeke Benton, Saturday’s winning pitcher. “Last year we came up here and fell short, and to come back up here again the next year and win it all, it just shows that we worked hard for it all year long and we wouldn’t let anything stop us.”
“There’s no feeling like it. It’s one of a kind,” said Eunice senior Micah Tippett, who had an inside-the-park grand slam on Saturday. “Losing last year played a huge role; it’s been in the back of our heads all year.”
“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever felt,” said Eunice senior Conagher Pierce, who catches and pitches for the Cardinals baseball team and quarterbacked the 2021 Cardinals football team. “This means everything to us; this is what we’ve wanted to accomplish. We won state in football, and now we won in baseball as well.”
What seemed like a hundred years earlier after Eunice blew Saturday’s game open, the Cardinals actually trailed 1-0 in the top of the first inning. Though Benton had a solid day on the mound, scattering five hits and striking out six in the five innings of play, he began the game by plunking Capitan’s leadoff batter Jonathan Ledesma, then walked the next batter Diego Gallegos. After inducing a pop out and a strikeout on the next two Tiger at-bats, Benton gave up an RBI single to Phillip Garcia to give Capitan a 1-0 lead.
But, that was not at all a sign of things to come. Benton didn’t allow any more runs until the top of the fifth inning, with the game way out of reach and Eunice’s victory almost a certainty.
In between, the Cardinals’ offense got going. Tippett led off the bottom of the first inning with a triple, then scored on a ground out by Jorge Ontiveros to quickly tie the game at 1. Chance Tucker walked, stole second base, and went to third on a wide throw at second, before scoring on a Pierce ground out to hand Eunice a 2-1 edge.
Benton then tripled, but was thrown out at home plate trying to stretch for an inside-the-park homer.
Benton headed back onto the mound for the top of the second inning, and had obviously settled down as he retired the Tigers 1-2-3 on a strikeout, ground out and fly out. And in the bottom of the second, the Cardinals went bonkers with runs. The half-inning began with a Sean Stinson walk, and with Jonathan Caballero batting, an errant pickoff attempt at first base allowed Stinson to take second. Caballero then singled, which sent Stinson home to make it 3-1. After Caballero went to second base on a passed ball, Marcus Tercero singled, scoring Caballero with the Cardinals’ fourth run.
A sacrifice bunt by Gio Chacon sent Tercero to second, and after Tippett reached on an error, Ontiveros singled to load the bases. Tucker was up next, and hit a two-run double to the gap in left-center, giving Eunice a 6-1 advantage.
Pierce was hit by a pitch, and though a fan in the stands shouted ‘charge the mound’, Pierce didn’t. He took first base and was replaced by courtesy runner Billy Blevins. A Benton single made its way to left field, scoring two more runs to make it an 8-1 ballgame.
Stinson was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and the next batter Caballero was also plunked, forcing a run in and increasing Eunice’s lead to 9-1. Tercero then walked, forcing in the Cardinals’ 10th run of the day.
The bases were still loaded for Tippett, who walloped one deep, then legged around the bases for an inside-the-park grand slam.
“Micah Tippett’s so daggum fast that any time he hits the ball and it gets past people, there’s always a chance that he’s going to score,” Reynolds said.
“I made contact with the ball,” Tippett recalled. “I started running, and made it all the way.”
And in the process, he gave Eunice a 14-1 lead.
But the Cardinals’ relentless second-inning charge wasn’t done. They kept collecting base runners and collecting runs, making it 15-1 when Tucker scored on a fielder’s choice by Pierce, and going up 17-1 on a two-run double from Benton.
That was it for Eunice’s second-inning scoring barrage, but the Cardinals stretched their lead to 19-1 in the bottom of the fourth on a two-run double by Jose Gomez. And Gomez soon scored on a double by Stinson to make it 20-1.
Before the inning was over, a Blevins single brought Benton home with the Cardinals’ last run of the game – and the season. Though Capitan scored two runs in the top of the seventh, Eunice’s win eventually went final, and the Cardinals finished 26-1, with a 23-1 regular-season mark that included a District 4-2A championship followed by three state playoff wins – 5-1 over ninth-seeded Menaul in the quarterfinals Thursday at Sandia High School; 10-9 Friday over fourth-seeded Tularosa in Friday’s semifinal at Rio Rancho High School; and Saturday’s championship-clinching victory over Capitan at UNM.
It was the end of a long road for the Cardinals, and the end of a lot of frustration over the past two years.
“These guys went through a COVID situation; they missed a season (in 2020),” Reynolds said. “Then they had an abbreviated season (last year). And to have a whole season (this year), and these guys to come out on top of this game, I can’t express how proud I am.”