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Ridge Point junior right-hander Kellen Gradisar.
Kellen Gradisar is happy to be pitching again. It’s been a long time coming.
The Ridge Point junior right-hander had his sophomore season washed out after blowing out his elbow in the first inning of the first game of the season. Gradisar lasted just six pitches, with no soreness or warning.
“Initially, he was disappointed,” coach Clint Welch said. “He’s a competitor, and here we are in the first tournament of the year, and he goes down.”
On March 10, 2021, Gradisar was told he would need to undergo Tommy John surgery. Ten days later, he underwent the procedure that repairs a torn ulnar collateral ligament inside the elbow.
From there, Gradisar relied on his determination, work ethic and desire.
Rehabbing with physical trainers three days every week, Gradisar somehow worked his way back onto the field in 10 months. He was cleared to play around the time the Panthers started preseason practices in late January.
Little by little this season, Gradisar has methodically worked his way back. And now, in these playoffs, he has emerged as arguably Ridge Point’s No. 1 arm heading into this week’s Class 6A state semifinal against Southlake Carroll on Friday.
Gradisar, who doesn’t expect to be at complete full health until November, has been exceptionally dominant in the postseason, going 5-0 with an 0.82 ERA and 18 strikeouts to five walks over 34 innings. He has been Ridge Point’s Game 1 starter in the last three playoff series.
“It’s been amazing,” Welch said. “They get better and better at the surgery and with the rehab, as far as the medical side. It seems like the recovery time for the ones who work hard, and Kellen is one of those, seems to be shortening a bit for a lot of these guys. Late in the season, he’s been throwing well, throwing complete games, and has not wanted to come out.”
Ridge Point junior pitcher Kellen Gradisar.Courtesy
Gradisar has thrown at least six innings in every playoff start. Four of his five starts are complete games.
Sixty-five percent of his pitches have gone for strikes. Over the last three starts, he’s allowed just two earned runs.
“I definitely give credit to Coach Welch and (assistant) Coach (Michael) Dutka for their pitch decisions, as well as me being able to throw first-pitch strikes,” Gradisar said.
Gradisar has three primary pitches: fastball, curveball, changeup. He can throw any of them consistently for strikes. His best pitch is his curveball, and he can throw it any time in the count to keep hitters off balance.
His fastball tops out at 87 miles per hour.
“I feel like the recovery got me stronger, and just the fact I am able to pitch again gives me confidence to be better,” Gradisar said. “I’m already a better pitcher now, but, because of surgery, I lost a lot of weight and I’m still trying to get it back. I’m hoping by the end of summer, I’m close to full potential.”
Gradisar was under a strict pitch count when he returned to the field this season.
During the opening tournament, coaches tried to keep him around 30-40 pitches. The next week, it went up by 10 as his arm continued to show improvement.
Through much of district play, Welch and Dutka kept him under 60 pitches. During the postseason, Gradisar’s total number of pitches by start have been 89, 99, 100, 92, 93.
He averages about 14 pitches thrown per inning.
“He’s pitching efficient,” Welch said. “Going into his sophomore year, we had him penciled in as at least the No. 2 starter. He could always execute and throw three different pitches consistently for strikes. When you can do that, you can get people out at any level.
“What we’re seeing this year is what we thought we were going to get last year. We always had a high opinion of him.”
\u201cPitched a complete game, 2-1 Ridge Point victory against Katy Tompkins during 6A regional quarter finals. 20 innings pitched during playoffs with a .35 ERA. @RPHSBaseball @PBR_Texas @OFFSEASON_BB @baseball_expos @FlatgroundApp\u201d — Kellen Gradisar (@Kellen Gradisar)
First-pitch strikes and trusting his defense is Gradisar’s recipe for a successful return. He commends the athleticism and speed of outfielders Carter Groen, Mason Dossett and Owen Farris. He applauds infielders Travis Vlasek, Zion Stephens, Parker Martin and Justin Vossos for their playmaking and aggressiveness.
Gradisar said catcher JJ Kennett has been crucial because of his poise and pitch framing ability.
“We have a lot of talent on the bump, but it helps as a pitcher knowing you can trust your defense when the other team hits it,” Gradisar said.
For his part, Welch praises Gradisar. Not only in his prolific pitch repertoire, but in how he is always unflappable on the mound. Never rushed, never panicked.
“Great composure,” Welch said.
Gradisar knows what it’s like to battle and fight, to push and prod. He knows adversity well.
He’s overcoming it well, too.
“You know when you get that surgery that it’ll probably be at least a year before you’re back,” Welch said. “But he did what competitors do. He got over the disappointment, started looking forward, got focused, got the surgery done, knew exactly what he had to do for rehab and followed all the protocols. It was no surprise to us that he was back within the year timeframe because of the work ethic that he has. It’s been incredible.”
Ridge Point players pose for a photo after their 2-1 Game 2 Region III-6A final win over Strake Jesuit punched their ticket to next week's state tournament.
HOUSTON—Ridge Point baseball coach Clint Welch is not one for pep talks.
“I have a one-sentence message I give every game, and I won’t repeat right now, but we preach that if you need a pep talk, then you don’t need to be playing,” Welch said.
So the Panthers play on.
Senior shortstop Justin Vossos’ two-out RBI triple in the seventh inning was the go-ahead winner and senior right-hander Hunter Nichols pitched a complete-game gem as Ridge Point topped defending regional champ Strake Jesuit, 2-1, on Friday in Game 2 of their Region III-6A final at University of Houston’s Don Sanders Field at Darryl & Lori Schroeder Park to book the Panthers’ second trip to state since 2019.
“I don’t give pep talks,” Welch said. “Our guys don’t need one. They come to play.”
\u201cRIDGE POINT!!! Panthers return to state for the second time in three seasons. @VossosJustin with the winning RBI 3B. Ridge Point sweeps Strake Jesuit in Region 3-6A final. Wins Game 2, 2-1. #txhsbaseball @FBISDAthletics @RPHSBaseball @RPHS_Panthers @KPRC2\u201d — VYPE Houston (@VYPE Houston)
For a few precious moments after Nichols struck out James Rheaume swinging to ignite raucous celebration, Welch watched his team revel in accomplishment.
“Right now, the feeling is happiness for the players,” Welch said. “The playoffs are a grind in high school baseball. Five weeks of just grind and work. You get in high-pressure situations. You get behind a lot. Emotions go back and forth. So, our boys did a great job of handling that and staying even-keel.”
The series was played as expected. Pitching and defense were impressive from both teams. There were as many strikeouts (21) as hits, and only nine walks, between the two teams in the two games.
Ridge Point took Game 1, 3-0, on Thursday on the back of a masterful complete-game shutout by junior Kellen Gradisar.
Friday, Ridge Point struck first in the third inning when Vossos scored on a throwing error by the Strake Jesuit first baseman. The Crusaders evened things to lead off their frame in the sixth when Trey Duffield smashed a home run to deep left.
In the seventh, Ridge Point did an admirable job manufacturing opportunity for Vossos.
Will Baker, the No. 7 hitter in the lineup, drew a lead-off walk. Zion Stephens hit into a fielder’s choice. Pinch hitter Theron Michalis struck out.
That’s when Vossos strolled to the plate. Strake Jesuit’s Kade Baron threw six pickoff attempts in Vossos’ at-bat, which went as follows: pickoff attempt, pickoff attempt, strike one, ball one, pickoff attempt, pickoff attempt, strike two, ball two, pickoff attempt, ball three, foul ball, pickoff attempt, triple.
On a 3-2 count with two outs, Vossos hammered a fastball to left center to score Stephens, who had stolen second after Baron’s fifth pickoff attempt.
“Shoutout to Kade, man,” Vossos said. “That’s my best friend. I’ve known him forever. He was up there trying to ruin our tempo, pick-off a lot, and I tried to stay focused every pitch. He blew two fastballs past me. He threw it again, so I got my pitch, shortened up and put it in play.”
\u201c.@VossosJustin two-out RBI triple regains the lead for @RPHSBaseball, 2-1. #txhsbaseball @FBISDAthletics @RPHS_Panthers\u201d — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
It was central casting from the baseball gods. Vossos is the only Panther on the current roster that played on the 2019 state finalist. As a freshman then, he led the team in hitting during the postseason.
“Their No. 1 hitter (Duffield) stepped up and got a huge clutch home run and then our No. 1 guy, our leader, answered,” Welch said. “Justin was aggressive. He got locked in and squared up that last one. That was awesome.”
From there, Nichols did the rest, putting the finishing touches on a brilliant outing in which 74 of 114 pitches went for strikes.
In Strake Jesuit’s bottom half of the seventh, Colin Sloan flew out to right fielder Owen Farris, who made an incredible play, getting a great jump and taking a smart angle, on a hard-hit ball that Welch figured Farris had no chance of getting to.
“Most people will not remember that,” Welch said of Ferris’ heroics. “But we will.”
Harrison Acquaro singled in the next at-bat. Nichols struck out Nick Sullo on four pitches. And then he took down Rheaume on six pitches.
Nichols surrendered one run on five hits, striking out 10 and walking two over seven innings of work.
“I wanted the moment,” said Nichols, whose potent early curveball helped set up his fastball. “I was ready for it, and I knew I had to pitch a good game. I tried to keep the nerves down. Keep calm and collected. I had to make good pitches and get outs, and I was thankfully able to do that with the defense behind me.”
\u201c.@RPHSBaseball senior RHP @HunterN913 discusses today\u2019s 2-1 Game 2 Region 3-6A final win that advances the Panthers to state. Nichols threw a complete-game gem, striking out 10 & allowing one run on five hits. #txhsbaseball @FBISDAthletics @RPHS_Panthers @RP_PantherPride @KPRC2\u201d — Dennis Silva II (@Dennis Silva II)
Nichols said the Panthers knew from the beginning they had what it took to get to state. They just had to play to their potential.
“The pitching has been incredible,” Welch said. “The number of complete games and the innings these guys have ate up to stay within the pitch count rules … unbelievable. We got clutch hits up and down the lineup in these five weeks. It’s been fun. Each week that goes by, the excitement just grows for them.”
And so the 35-5 Panthers, an unsuspecting group of gritty competitors who know nothing more than to battle and fight for every pitch and at-bat, move on, having earned the right to play one more week as part of Class 6A’s final four.
“It’s exciting,” Vossos said. “We’ve worked for this all year, and it’s exciting to see these guys come together. You love to see everyone battling in a close game and all the excitement when we get that last out. Incredible feeling.”