LAKEWOOD – In his 52 seasons coaching baseball at Cherry Creek, Marc Johnson hasn’t been focused on winning championships. Championships are byproducts of strong execution, diligent practice and bringing together talented, passionate people. Still, the championships don’t hurt, and you couldn’t script a better ending for perhaps the greatest high school baseball coach in the state’s history.

Johnson got his storybook walk-off Saturday at All-Star Park, with the No. 5 Bruins twice upsetting No. 2 Regis Jesuit, first 11-1 in five innings, then 5-2. It allowed the coach to hoist his ninth state championship trophy after a flurry of hugs from family, friends, former players and a current Bruins squad that Johnson believed in deeply.

And after all that, he had a few simple words for his team.

“God bless you all,” the coach said. “And thank you.”

Then he followed it up with “let’s dance” as the players and still-spry coach bounced around the championship trophy.

It was an underdog run that saw Cherry Creek bounce back from a 3-0 loss to Regis Jesuit in last week’s semifinals, meaning the Bruins would have to win three games in two days, while the Raiders needed only one victory.

But Johnson never doubted his players, and the team wanted to win one for Coach J.

“We knew our backs were against the wall,” Johnson said. “We knew we had to win three in a row and they only had to win one. I told my players, ‘There’s no team in this state that I know of that could do it, except this one.’
“Baseball will humble you. I have no idea why it aligned the way it did, but I’m very thankful to God.”

Senior Eddie Esquivel, who finished with seven RBIs across the two games, said the Bruins were determined to win for Johnson and each other. It’s Cherry Creek’s first baseball title since 2012 and the state-best 239th title for the school across all sports.

“To do it for J, to do it for each other, is unlike any other feelings,” Esquivel said. “The last time we played Regis, they beat us in the mental game, but we beat them in the mental game today and I’m proud of everybody.”

The loss to Regis last weekend was heated, with both teams involved in verbal altercations. This weekend’s contest was more reserved, with the most heated moment coming in the second inning of the second game, when a Cherry Creek runner appeared to touch the plate well before the tag but was called out.

That sent a visibly angry Johnson out of the dugout to express his displeasure, but the moment was also a turning point for the team. Brayden Yasuzawa had a stellar back-foot throw from second base to home that ended a Regis rally on a fielder’s choice. It was Yasuzawa, too, who made the first mark on the scoreboard with one-run double to the fence in right. A ground-rule double from Larkin plated Yasuzawa and put the Bruins up 2-0 in the top of the fifth.

Jace Filliman responded in the bottom of the frame with a solo home run that he tattooed over the scoreboard in left field, but Creek would get a run back on Tyce Smith’s RBI single through the left side. In the seventh, Luke Rose doubled, then Yasuzawa laid down a bunt with near-perfect backspin to fall between charging defenders. The ensuing throw was wide of the bag at first and Rose trotted home on the error. Sean Klaess entered as a pinch runner of Yasuzawa and was driven in Esquivel to make it 5-1.

Regis got one run back in the bottom of the seventh and was threatening, but Ryan Falke struck out the final batter he faced to cap a complete game and kick off celebrations.

Across the two games, Yasuzawa made several highlight-reel plays from second base and served as a sparkplug on the offensive end. The senior joked that the defense was routine, but added that it was all for Johnson and the team.

“It’s what we’ve been training for this whole year,” Yasuzawa said. “Every single out, every single practice was for this. We’re such a family and we knew we could rise to the occaision in a moment like this. It’s a good day to be a Bruin.”

Cherry Creek forced the if-needed game with one of their most dominating performances of the season.

The series of rallies kicked off in the top of the first inning with a two-run home run from Connor Larkin, skyed to left field. After a quiet second frame, the Bruins opened the third inning with back-to-back singles, followed by a triple to the left-center gap from Esquivel. An error allowed Esquivel to score and forced Regis into a pitching change, the first of four for the Raiders.

Regis seemed poised to answer in the bottom of the third with two runners on an no outs, but Christian Lopez was caught stealing for the second time that morning, then Yasuzawa made a diving catch on a bloop near second base to cut the rally short.

Yasuzawa followed that up with a one-run double in the fourth, then Regis loaded the bases with an intentional walk. That proved to be a poor decision, however, when Esquivel laced a bases-clearing double to the fence. Will Taylor added a gapper of his own to make it 10-0 in the fourth.

Esquivel added his sixth RBI of the game on a sac fly to put the Bruins up 11-0 through the top of the fifth.

Starting pitcher Wyatt Rudden talked the bases loaded in the bottom of the fifth, and there was even a moment where the pitching coach motioned for the bullpen to hurry up, but the junior escaped while allowing only one run and ended the game early.

The right-hander allowed just five hits and all three of his walks came in the fifth inning. He struck out five to support the only time Regis Jesuit has been 10-runned this season by an in-state opponent. The Saturday surge for Cherry Creek was also only the second time the Raiders have lost back-to-back contests this season.

As for all the praise and accolades, Johnson said the success is shared with all those around him, past and present.

“It’s been an awesome run,” he said. “I’ve loved every second, every day that I’ve coached and every kid that I’ve coached. I had guys here from the ‘70s, from the ‘80s, from the ‘90s, from the 2000s — guys who are in the family. I’ve been trying to explain this to folks. I have no idea how this all fell into place. But it’s not because of me. It’s because of players, because of my coaching staff, because of all the people who support us. We love the family.

“The Cherry Creek baseball family is huge and this championship is for them.”

Pitching powers Creek to ninth state title

The math doesn’t lie — Cherry Creek needed, at most, 21 innings to win a state championship coming into this weekend. Regis Jesuit needed only seven. And nowhere was that disparity felt more than with the Bruins’ pitching staff and pitching coach Dave Veres.

Cherry Creek needed to figure out where to throw Ryan Falke, Wyatt Rudden and Tyler Weston. One guy would need to take care of Grandview and the other two would have to work deep in a doubleheader against Regis Jesuit. The 6-foot-5 Falke is the most physically imposing, Rudden has logged the most innings and Weston is fearless.

It was a tough task for Veres and the coaching staff.

“That’s the dilemma,” Veres said. “Do you go with your No. 1 or 2, and save Tyler? Not that Tyler is a No. 3 anywhere else. We’re fortunate to have four No. 1s, but how do you arrange that when the guy you have throwing that day is essentially your No. 1? It’s a great dilemma to have, honestly, but it’s still something you have to work through.”

They opted for Weston, the de facto No. 3, to toe the rubber in Game 1 against surging underdog Grandview.

Creek had already beaten them once in the regular season and once in the state tournament, but the Wolves were peaking at the correct time.

For six innings, Weston was rock solid as the Bruins carried an 11-3 lead into the top of the seventh. The senior said he “honestly got barreled” in the seventh as the Wolves came roaring back, but he still swallowed 6 2/3 innings for a pitching staff that couldn’t afford a short outing. Only four of the runs allowed were earned, Weston struck out seven and Cameron Larson needed only 10 pitches to secure the final out.

“My pitching style never changes,” Weston said. “I will always pound the strike zone and always attack hitters no matter what. I want to get a ground ball and let me defense do the work for me. Because hitting is hard, you know? Let them mess up and let my defense do the work.”

That left Falke and Rudden ready to go against Regis, and the staff opted to put Rudden on the mound first.

It turned out to be a good choice, with the high-energy junior riding the highs of Creek’s most dominating game of the postseason. Not only was Rudden working quickly, he was regularly hyping up his teammates coming off the mound.

He was near-perfect through the first four frames before he walked the bases loaded in the fifth. There was even a moment where an assistant coach signaled for the player in the bullpen to hurry through his warmup.

But Rudden worked out of the jam while allowing only one run and still only allowed five hits across five innings against one of the best hitting teams in the state.

“I trust my stuff and I trust the defense,” Rudden said. “You can’t ask for much more when those are working, so I’m glad I was able to power through that.”

Veres said it was competitive fire that fed Rudden and the team.

“You can’t ask for a better competitor,” Veres said. “So, it was nice having him ready to go. Having him and Ryan, I liked our chances.”

Falke followed up with another compete game, this one lasting into the seventh. He capped his effort with a swinging strikeout of the final batter he faced, kicking off celebrations on the mound. He struck out three batters and held the Raiders scoreless through the first four innings. A solo shot slightly dented his work in the fifth, but it was smooth sailing until the seventh, when the Raiders had three straight hits to plate a run and put two on. But the long-and-strong righty put the game away with a couple ground balls before his game-winning strikeout.

“I was really just trying to stop the bleeding and get the final out however I could,” Falke said. “I’m glad I got the strikeout there, because it’s the last thing I remember. Once I threw that pitch, I think I blacked out a little bit.”

The success is a testament to the depth of Cherry Creek’s pitching. Weston has graduated and is committed to South Mountain Community College. Falke and Rudden will likely return, and both have drawn major interest.

Falke is committed to Waashington State, while Rudden is committed to Michigan.

“I couldn’t ask for a better pitching staff,” Veres said. “I was pretty blessed with the guys we had and we wouldn’t have done this without them.”