At the end of last year’s state quarterfinal loss to Minnetonka, then-Stillwater junior Brayden Hellum went out to the outfield and took a photo of the scoreboard.
He then made a proclamation: Next year would be different.
It was a bold statement given what the Ponies did – or didn’t – have coming back. The 2022 Ponies featured just three returners from last year’s state tournament team. Among this year’s players, only Hellum started in last year’s section final against Cretin-Derham Hall.
The Ponies didn’t enter this season with much varsity experience, nor many physically imposing figures. They don’t feature a current Division-I commit.
Yet they are now state champions. Stillwater downed Farmington, the defending state champ, 8-1 in Friday’s Class 4A state title game at Target Field, bringing Hellum’s prophecy to fruition.
What led the outfielder to believe such a statement at the time? When asked that Friday, he pointed to the swarm of players celebrating behind him.
“You’re looking at it. This is the hardest working group of boys I’ve ever met in my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world,” Hellum said. “I was so confident, because of every single one of these boys who’ve given all the effort throughout the season, the offseason, everything. It wasn’t only a promise by me, it was a promise by our whole team.”
A promise that was carried out via the work started immediately last offseason. Stillwater baseball has always sported a team-first culture. This group may have taken it to new heights.
“It’s not about any individual. It’s about the team, and every single guy believes in that philosophy,” said Austin Buck, who tossed a complete game Friday, allowing just four hits – with only two of them coming after the first frame. “When we go to practice every single day, it’s for the team, for the team, for the team.”
During Buck’s interview, his teammates raced over to place various hats and sunglasses upon his head.
“You have a lot of fun when you play for your team. When you play for individuals, like a lot of teams out here, you don’t have as much fun,” he said of the shenanigans. “But when you play for your team, everybody can rally behind players when they have success, because everybody loves that player, because he’s doing it for the team.”
Stillwater coach Mike Parker doesn’t feel as though most understand just how team-oriented baseball is. But it was on full display for the Ponies this season – and Friday night in particular. The second-seeded Ponies (23-4) took advantage of every single opportunity presented to them. Stillwater scored twice in the second inning on the strength of a sacrifice fly and a double steal. It scored twice more in the third inning on three singles and two batters who were hit by pitch.
Hellum and Joshua Wallace each had a pair of hits for the Ponies. Everyone contributed in some way, shape or form.
“They were really loose today, and that’s not like them. They were just, I think, happy to be in this spot, and they were just going to go out and play the game that they love,” Parker said. “We’ve been talking about playing a perfect game for a long time, and we hadn’t. We’d kind of won ugly in our first two games of this tournament, I felt like. Then they kind of put the perfect game together, to be honest.”
Farmington, on the doorstep of completing a dream repeat season, wasnt at its sharpest Friday. The top-seeded Tigers (23-4) walked five Stillwater hitters and hit four more. They committed two errors on one play in the sixth inning, allowing Buck to score on a single to right field after errors made in right field and on the ensuing throw home.
That’s a lot to overcome in a state title game — particularly against a team as opportunistic as Stillwater, and on a night in which Buck was dialed in on the bump.
One of the two hits he allowed after the first inning came with two outs in the final frame. He responded to that by striking out the next batter to induce the dogpile.
“I was very confident. I’ve always felt that I pitch better under pressure when I go right at them,” Buck said. “I knew I could take ’em. When I pitch my best, I know I can compete with anybody.”
His confidence only swelled with his team’s success throughout the game.
“We have the best fricken offense in the world, the best defense in the world,” he said. “They played amazing tonight. So yeah, why not get more confident.”
Standing on the field after the win, Hellum reflected on the work the Ponies put in to reach this point. It was all with Friday night in mind. And it all paid off at the most opportune time.
“I think what it really came down to tonight was who wanted it more, and we wanted it more,” Hellum said. “We’ve just got heart. We’ve got heart.”
And now, a state title.
“They are an amazing team,” Parker said. “It just goes to show, we don’t have any Division-I players out there, but a team can go out and win.”