ARIMO — In the end, Payton Campbell got his big moment.
The celebration, the trophy, the photos, the hugs. The post-game chicken wing pig-out. The police-led caravan through town to the high school. The mob of waiting supporters. Celebrity status, even if it was just for an hour or two.
It was everything Campbell had hoped for, and then some. A cherry to top his high school career — an eagle proudly taking its perch.
It took until his very last game to get there. Even then, a late miscue made him wait longer.
He didn’t hold back when it was over. The star multi-sport athlete who’s made of pure toughness was dripping with tears.
“Finally,” he kept saying then. He did it, Marsh Valley did it — finally, a championship.
Campbell is the Journal’s 2019 All-Area Baseball Player of the Year.
“This is the moment that I’m going to come back and think on,” Campbell said a month later. “Through all the thousands of games I’ve played, it’s just going to be that one where we won the state championship.”
Campbell helped build the baseball program at Marsh Valley High School. Together, they peaked.
It wasn’t too long ago when the perennial state title contenders had never sniffed a state trophy. They played on a home field Campbell called simply “a mess,” with no home run fence, no scoreboard, no bullpens or batting cages or clubhouse — not even dugouts.
When Campbell was in seventh grade, Marsh Valley won its first-ever district championship and made its first trip to state — more than two decades into the program’s existence.
By Campbell’s final game with Marsh Valley, the Eagles were a staple at the state tournament, reaching the semifinals in 2014, 15 and 18. Their home field was fully furnished with the aforementioned amenities, plus new bases and a new pitching mound.
The field improvements were initiated by head coach Kent Howell, who took over the program before the 2013 campaign. The team chooses one major renovation each year, and the players’ fundraising dollars go right back into those projects.
Howell estimates the program spends around $10,000 per year on the field, helping the team match its strong play with a diamond it’s proud to showcase.
For his senior-year project, Campbell held a two-day baseball camp and donated all proceeds back to the program.
“I had Kent just take all the money to where he could fix it up and make it even nicer, to where people would come in from away games and be like, ‘This is a nice field. Marsh Valley is the real deal about baseball,’” Campbell said. “It’s good to see the money put back into the field we play on.”
Campbell spent all four seasons on varsity, taking over as the team’s starting catcher when he was a sophomore. Howell saw Campbell play as a middle-schooler and saw a glimpse into Marsh Valley’s future.
“When he was 11 and 12, I remember going to Bear Lake and watching him hit home runs,” Howell said. “And then he was in Mesquite, Nevada, hitting home runs. The ball was landing clear up by the interstate on a field.”
Howell hoped Campbell could fill a hole at catcher, too.
But that wasn’t such a sure thing.
“On the team that he traveled with, they would play him all over. He caught, he pitched, he played first, I watched him play third,” Howell said. “When he came in his freshman year, I was really hoping that he would take to the catching.
“I actually asked him before the season started. I said, ‘If you got to play any position, what position would you pick?’ And he was like, ‘I love to catch.’ When he said that, I actually remember going home and telling my wife. I’m like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be good.’”
Campbell was an ISJ All-Area pick as a sophomore and junior, hitting .310 in 10th grade and .365 in 11th. He also stifled opponents defensively, gunning down would-be base-stealers at a high rate.
But Campbell and the Eagles struggled to get over the hump — the next hump. Winning a district championship and making state were great strides for the program. There was even a third-place state trophy in 2015.
Campbell, Howell and the Eagles wanted more. They were capable of it. The trips to the semifinals, while signs of steady success, formed a wall the Eagles couldn’t seem to climb over.
“We just could not catch a break,” Campbell said.
Howell said the 2019 season felt different early.
Though his team was scarce of seniors and relied heavily on freshmen and sophomores, the blend of raw talent and seasoned experience gave the squad something special.
Marsh Valley entered the state tournament with a 15-5 record and an offense, led by Campbell, that averaged 12 runs per game. Howell and the coaching staff turned to Campbell and the other three seniors to guide the young team on its quest for the program’s first-ever state title.
“A lot of times, they did the talking in the meetings,” Howell said. “They actually set up extra practices before state on their own. We weren’t even there.”
Marsh Valley breezed past Timberlake in the first round at state, winning 19-8 in five innings. Next up was South Fremont — a team that beat the Eagles twice already that season — in the state semis — which had always been Marsh Valley’s ceiling.
“We didn’t play until like 8 at night, so we had a lot of time during the day to hang out and relieve stress and stuff,” Campbell said. “But then once the game started, you could tell the team was just locked in right when we got on the field.”
Marsh Valley avenged the two regular-season losses to South Fremont with an 8-1 win. The next day, in what should have been a pressure-filled and tense situation for Marsh Valley’s first-time title-game team, the Eagles dominated Sugar-Salem, continuing their offensive surge with a 16-2, five-inning win. Campbell went 2 for 3 with three runs and three RBIs in his Eagles finale. He caught the game’s final pitch — a strikeout — after the routine play prior was booted.
But maybe it was more fitting that way.
“Right when you caught it, the pressure was gone because it was over,” Campbell said. “It was one of those moments where your whole team, even the ones that didn’t play, put a part in. We finally brought it back.”
After the game, the team went to Buffalo Wild Wings. On their way home, they were met by trails of cars that followed them, along with a police escort, back to the high school.
They were met by “gobs” of locals at Marsh Valley High School when they arrived well after dark.
“The fans that didn’t even watch baseball were there,” Campbell said. “Just the fact that they loved Marsh Valley and they grew up there, and to finally have a winning season and do something good. … The whole town was there.”
Campbell finished his season hitting .559, with five home runs, 36 runs batted in, 49 runs scored and 21 stolen bases. Twenty-two of his 38 hits went for extra bases, and he nixed 11 of 33 would-be base-stealers.
He’s still evaluating opportunities to play baseball in college. He began the recruiting process late after initially leaning toward a college football career.
“He was an incredible player,” Malad High baseball coach Justin Howe said. “He’s just a scary hitter, and it’s tough to get him guessing up there at the plate. He can hit an outside, an inside pitch very well.”
For Marsh Valley, Campbell’s value went beyond his statistics. Howell pointed to his leadership — both vocal and by example — and his ability to resonate with everyone in Marsh Valley’s program, from Little League all the way up.
He leaves the Eagles on top, and in good hands with a young roster that benefitted from his guidance.
“He’s been a leader all the way through,” Howell said. “This year, especially. He filled a huge role for us, because they looked up to him.”