JONESBORO — The Class 4A state championship game was scoreless in the fourth inning when Valley View’s Slade Caldwell worked Magnolia pitcher Seth Edwards for a one-out walk.
Hitless to that point, the Blazers wouldn’t need one for Caldwell to cross the plate. He stole second base, stole third base and scored on Tyler Hoskins’ sacrifice fly.
“That’s Slade Caldwell. Walk, steal second, steal third, score on a sacrifice fly,” Valley View coach Josh Allison said. “Most teams don’t score a run there and you’re down 1-0 after the next inning, and we’re tied 1-1 and didn’t have a hit.”
The Blazers eventually broke through with six hits in the last two innings, Caldwell making his presence felt there as well, and brought home a state championship with an 8-1 victory.
The state final capped an impressive freshman season for Caldwell, the Best Under The Sun Newcomer of the Year. His totals included a .483 batting average, 55 runs scored and 37 stolen bases in 37 attempts.
Batting third in the lineup, Caldwell drove in 38 runs and produced 21 extra-base hits, including 13 doubles and seven triples.
“He got off to a rocket start and pretty much never slowed down from that pace,” Allison said of his team’s freshman center fielder. “He set a single-season record at our school for runs scored and stole over 30 bases, was a big run producer for us RBI-wise. To go into the season, you’ve got this good freshman, but you really don’t know because he’s never played high school ball. For him to do that was a huge reason we won a state title.”
While he had never suited up for the Blazers until this spring, Caldwell was already seasoned thanks to his time with travel teams.
Playing for a team affiliated with California-based BPA Baseball, Caldwell has already played in the Atlanta area twice and Dallas once since the high school season. He also went to a couple of showcase events this week, including one at Ole Miss, where he made a verbal commitment last fall.
“I really didn’t have a clue as far as winning a state championship. I was going to give it my all anyway. I really like the coaches,” Caldwell said, discussing his freshman season. “It was a lot different than showcase baseball. In school ball, you go from playing all these different schools, because you know people from the schools, and I think it’s different. It’s a lot more competitive. Being around my teammates all the time is really great.”
While he spent most of the season in the outfield, Caldwell also pitched a little, especially late in the season. In 8 1/3 innings, he had a 1-0 record, three saves and did not yield an earned run.
“He saved two games in the postseason in the same day at the regionals and was the first guy we brought in against Shiloh and he closed the game out against Harrison,” Allison said. “He’s the guy of kid who has it in him where that doesn’t faze him.”
Allison describes the 5-foot-7 Caldwell as “pure muscle,” strong enough to hit the ball over the batter’s eye in center field against the wind during a game against Cabot at Harding Academy.
The rest of Caldwell’s extra-base hits this year were doubles and triples that showcased his speed and ability to make solid contact.
“I don’t try to do too much. I try to hit it where it’s pitched and go for contact. I don’t try to hit for power,” Caldwell said. “I really want to get better opposite field, hitting for power opposite field, and getting more extra-base hits to the opposite field.”
Allison said Caldwell, who had an on-base percentage of .636 and a slugging percentage of .828, understands what he wants to do at the plate.
“He’s always trying to get better,” Allison said. “It’s easy for everybody to say, ‘Well, I’m always trying to get better,’ but he’s got substance behind working his swing, working his approach, not getting lost in just trying to hit home runs in batting practice. He’s a really mature hitter for a 15-year-old kid and understands how to hit.”
Caldwell said he’s picked up timing tips from Valley View assistant Dustin Jones on running the bases.
The Blazers stole 203 bases as a team. Six Valley View players had double-digit steals.
“We’re really aggressive on the basepaths,” said Caldwell, who had three stolen bases in the state championship game. “We like to cause the defense a lot of havoc.”
And in the big games, Caldwell was on top of his game. He reached base in nine of 11 plate appearances during the state tournament, going 4-for-6 with five walks, five runs scored, six RBI and four stolen bases in three games.
“In the biggest games of the year, I think he got on base at a clip of 82 percent. There would be games where he would be on base every time,” Allison said. “I think in the regional that day we played Pocahontas and Lonoke, he was on base every time he came to the plate. In the big games at the end of the year when we needed him the most, he came through. Against Shiloh he came through with four RBIs in the first three innings and scored two runs. When the games got bigger, he played really well.”