Sports Zone, Springfield

Saunders drives Colts success from the mound

EUGENE – As a freshman last season, Grady Saunders secured Thurston’s state title with a walk-off, extra-inning, inside-the-park home run. This season, Saunders secured the title through his play on the mound, pitching 6.1 innings, striking out four, and shutting out a West Albany team that averaged almost 7 runs a game. 

Not too shabby for the first two seasons of a high school career.

“I’m so happy. We had a talk before this game about leaving a legacy, and I think we did that,” Saunders said after Thurston’s 2-0 win in the state title game Saturday. “We probably should have played a little better, just like last year, but we got the job done, so I’m super excited.”

Saunders followed in another sophomore’s footsteps, teammate Connor Molony, who pitched in last season’s state title game as a sophomore and recorded 3 Ks while allowing only 4 hits. 

Molony was unable to pitch the majority of this season after an opening-night injury, and Saunders picked up the ace-pitcher mantle, starting all four playoff games for Thurston. In those four wins, Saunders pitched 18 innings and recorded 21 Ks while allowing only 7 hits.

“Man, (Grady)’s a complete bulldog. He knew he was starting game one in the playoffs, and he pitched really well,” Thurston coach Dennis Minium said. “Then game two, he goes, ‘Yeah, I want the ball.’ And we went from there. I can’t say enough about Grady. Complete warrior, and a really damn good baseball player.”

Saunders needed every ounce of the bulldog within on Saturday after a shaky start to the game. West Albany’s second batter singled on a fly ball in the opening inning, and Saunders hit the next batter on a full count. The Colts got out of the inning with a double play, but Saunders walked and hit a batter in the second inning as well.

“I could have commanded the zone a little bit better, but it’s definitely a lot harder to pitch in a state championship than a regular game,” Saunders said. “The nerves got to me a little bit, but just focusing on the glove is the main part of helping block out the noise.”

KALLIE HANSEL-TENNES / CHRONICLE PHOTO. Saunders poses with OSAA Executive Director Peter Weber after being honored as the Moda Health Player of the Game.

Saunders must have focused pretty hard on the glove after those opening innings, as West Albany had only three batters make it past first base the rest of the game.

“(Grady) handled it amazingly. If you’re just a fan in the audience, you can’t even tell he was nervous. He was composed the whole entire time and showed no emotion, other than the emotion of the high- intensity moments when he wins,” Molony said. “If he doesn’t tell you, you’d have no clue he’s nervous up there. He handled the pressure incredibly well.”

Saunders entered the top of the 7th to try and close the game out, but hit the high school maximum pitch count of 110 with only one out, so Thurston brought in Eli Crist from third base to close, and sent Saunders to third. With two outs, West Albany’s Andrew Yost popped one to third base – directly into Saunders’ glove – to end the game and give Thurston consecutive state titles.

“I’m definitely gonna remember both dog piles on this field,” Saunders said afterward, noting his post-title celebration plan was a simple one. “I’m just gonna hang out with some friends, and get some food. I’m hungry.”

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