EUGENE – The Thurston Colts were tied 1-1 with West Albany in the bottom of the 8th inning of the Class 5A State Championship game on Saturday when freshman Grady Saunders, the first batter of the half-inning, stepped up to bat. The first three pitches he watched the ball go by. On the fourth pitch Saunders swung, smacking the ball deep into right-center field.
“Right off the bat, I thought it was gone, like over the fence,” Saunders said. “I was just chuggin’. I knew it was going to be at least a double or a triple.”
Saunders’ coach Dennis Minium thought Saunders had hit a home run too. Instead the ball ended up short, with West Albany center fielder Evan Bliss diving to catch it but missing. The ball bounced off the wall at the University of Oregon’s PK Park, but Bliss mishandled it when he tried to pick it up, giving Saunders extra time to run.
“When Grady hit that I thought it was gone. Then I saw it short-hop the fence, and then I saw the West Albany kid kind of bobble it. Grady was almost at third and then all of a sudden, (assistant coach) Brandon (Benedick) is waving him in over at third,” Minium said. “That was crazy. That was a crazy ending to a great season by our guys, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Saunders beat the throw at home by a split-second, and the Thurston Colts baseball team won its first state championship since 2009 with a walkoff, extra-inning, inside-the-park home run.
“It’s insane. Just Incredible. It’s a great feeling,” Minium said. “Just knowing that the hard work paid off for the kids. And the hard work from all my coaches.”
The Colts got the ball rolling early in the game as Adam Elliott had a leadoff double in the bottom of the first inning. Maddox Molony, back-to-back Class 5A Player of the Year, then drove in Elliott with a double of his own to put Thurston up 1-0 within minutes.
That would be Thurston’s last run during regulation, though, and West Albany scored a run of its own in the top of the 4th inning to tie the game. The game went scoreless after that, with neither team coming close to winning in the 7th, and so it went to extra innings. Thurston got a quick three outs thanks to a double play by Molony, setting up Saunders’ walkoff.
Thurston also had a stellar showing from sophomore pitcher Connor Molony, who pitched 8 innings, recorded 3 Ks and allowed only 4 hits. It was a full-circle moment for Connor, who started at pitcher for Thurston on opening night in March at PK Park.
“It wasn’t on my mind until our pitching coach Cason (Cunningham) said something. He said, ‘We started the season with you on the mound at PK Park and we’re ending the season with you on the mound at PK Park,’” Connor said. “It was meant to be. It was meant to happen like that. It shows in what we did today.”
Minium said he knew it was special on Tuesday night after the semifinal win, the moment he found out where his team would be playing in the state title game.
“We talked about that on Tuesday night when we knew where we were playing,” Minium said. “Starting the season at PK with Connor on the mound, and ending the season with Connor on the mound at PK. It couldn’t be a more fitting end to a great season by our guys.”
Both Molony brothers, sophomore Connor and senior Maddox, are committed to play college baseball at the University of Oregon. It was a perfect send-off for Maddox.
“I’m obviously excited. I’m happy for my teammates and happy for everyone here,” Maddox said. “Not just myself, this is a great win for everybody and a great way to send off for us seniors.”
Younger brother Connor echoed that sentiment.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Connor said. “I’m gonna miss him. We’ll be going to the same college so I’m gonna see him in the future, but there couldn’t have been a better way to send him off.”
Minium voiced his appreciation for both the Molony brothers, and the seniors in general.
“Connor and Maddox are two of the hardest-working kids that we’ve had in our program ever. I couldn’t be more proud of them. But we also lose Easton McDonald. He’s a great kid, I love that kid. We lose Drew White and Drew Blackwell too, both awesome kids,” Minium said. “I’m gonna miss those four seniors. But it really is a great way to send them out for sure.”