GUNNISON—Three Gunnison Valley student-athletes have played together on every single baseball and basketball team since age 8, and now in their senior year, they are looking to go out with a bang.
Harley Hill, Janzen Keisel and Creed Mogle almost led the Gunnison Valley basketball team to a Cinderella run in the February state basketball tournament as the No. 9-seed, but lost in overtime to top-seeded Beaver.
In baseball, the Bulldogs entered the week 8-1 and have their eyes on a specific prize in their last season together.
“Seeing our siblings and even our coach, they won state championships when we were in elementary school; it’s just kind of a culture here,” Hill says about the ambitions he and his teammates adopted as young players.
Hill, Keisel and Mogle grew up closely knit with most of their current baseball roster members. Many were within a one-mile radius. They recall showing up unannounced at each other’s houses to find something to do together as children.
They say through everyone spending so much time together, especially in sports, the teammates’ friendships and mutual trust deepened over the years. Now, they lean on the trust this has formed in competition.
“It keeps everybody connected. And when you get the town behind you, it motivates you even more,” Mogle says.
For Hill, Keisel and Mogle, the streak of always being teammates began about a decade ago with the Gunnison Gunners, a summer-ball team that often played into the fall.
In their first season, they did not win a game. As 9-year-olds, though, the “magic” started happening in Cedar City, where they got their first win, and they remember piling on top of each other to celebrate. Later that summer in the Beaver Bash tournament, they overcame an 11-run deficit in the bottom of the final inning of the championship game to win the whole thing.
“We started actually being able to compete with everybody, the bigger teams, the teams down south. It made me want to play more and more,” Mogle says.
Their coach was Clint Keisel, father to Janzen and currently an assistant coach on the high school team.
“They’ve really focused on the basic fundamentals, and I think that’s why they’re as good as they are,” Clint Keisel says about all the players on the current team. “They’re all friends out there, and they’re just turning into great young men.”
The coach specifically mentioned Ryker and Thatcher Stewart, Payton Dyreng and Talon Belnap as other Gunners players from the class of 2021.
Janzen Keisel says of those foundational days, “Hanging out with your buddies in a hotel room in St. George when you’ve got eight hours in between games, that’s where you really build chemistry.”
During winters of the little-league years, the trio would play basketball tournaments in the Salt Lake-area Bantam League. Their team, coached by Cody Dyreng, was the Gunnison Growl.
“We were a little school, and we would go up there and just beat up on big teams that otherwise didn’t even know where Gunnison was,” Hill says.
If they still did not know about Gunnison before this baseball season, some big schools have certainly learned by now.
Take 5A Timpview, for example, which the Bulldogs defeated 21-1 in the season opener in Provo. According to Coach Max Sanders, about a dozen scouts from professional teams attended that one to watch Keisel pitch.
As the season progresses, the Bulldogs will be in familiar territory chasing another state championship. As for how they will pull it off, they will rely on a tight fielding defense and one of the top pitching rotations in the state, which includes the Keisel-Mogle-Hill trio.
On offense, the 2021 Bulldogs can run up scores. They have versatile hitters who do not strike out often and can drive balls deep into gaps, and they force pressure on the base paths with speed.
Any championship-winning team needs intangible contributing factors, too. Gunnison Valley players can tap into the winning culture and support system from their sports-minded community.
“Whenever we’re playing state tournaments, to know the community’s just there, it’s just nice,” Janzen Keisel says.
“I mean, even in COVID, people are scared and everything, but you can still pack a stadium for a Friday night football game,” Hill says. “Everybody’s willing to support everybody.”
The teammates’ rapport, collective work ethic and friendship are products of countless hours spent together, “growing as young men and players,” Clint Keisel says.
“We see teams all the time, they just can’t trust each other and just don’t play well together,” Hill says. “Growing up with these guys and learning how to trust, we learn how to complement each other. When one of us is having a bad game, we know the other one will pick us up.”
After graduation, these three players will have to break the streak of seasons spent as teammates.
Janzen, who is the middle child of Clint and Kristin Keisel, has committed to pitch for BYU. Creed, youngest of three sons to John and Fawntell Mogle, will go to Columbia Basin College in southern Washington, where he was recruited to play catcher.
Hill’s future depends on the call of the LDS church, to which he submitted papers to serve a mission wherever it might send him. Afterward, he will have a scholarship to Snow College awaiting him, and he will serve as an ambassador there. He is the son of Andy and Heather Hill and the middle child of three.
From “making their own fun” as young children to “playing ball all summer” to leading their varsity teams together, the three Bulldogs say it might not have been the same if it were not for all the time spent together in sports.
But through their Gunnison upbringing, they have won numerous tournaments and played hundreds of games together, and they know they will continue to have a tightly knit community behind them.
Now, they will push to finish out one more season the way the culture they grew up in taught them to.