While I'll Have Another chases horse racing's Triple Crown on Saturday, high school sports has its own triple treat this weekend: the state baseball tournament in Lexington, the state softball tournament in Owensboro, and the Kentucky-Indiana all-star basketball series in Louisville and Indianapolis.
■ There's been a dramatic drop-off in offense in the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark this year. Terrific pitching has something to do with it, but the biggest reason for fewer runs and hits are the less-forgiving bats. A new rule this season reduced the trampoline effect in the aluminum bats, making them more like wood bats. The numbers don't lie. In the 2010 state tournament, there 82 runs and 128 hits in the eight first-round games. In 2011, there were 96 runs and 127 hits. The totals decreased drastically this year to 44 runs and 67 hits.
"The bats are a little more dead," St. Xavier senior Andrew Willinger said. "Last year you could check-swing and hit a double in the gap. This year you check-swing and you'll ground out to short." Bigger, stronger players can still whack the ball out of the park, as the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Willinger showed with a home run against Mercer County on Monday. Henderson County's 6-4, 260-pound senior Avery Pitt also showed power, pounding a pair of doubles to the wall against North Oldham. Pitt said the new bats have "a little less pop, but a guy like me, who's got a lot of weight behind it, the ball still goes pretty far." North Oldham shortstop Connor Heady, a 6-0, 175-pound junior who's committed to play at UK, presents a counterpoint. He hit nine homers this spring after hitting none last year. "But for me, it was the weight room," he said. "I put on about 10 pounds. And I took lessons from (former St. X and Houston Astros player) Chris Burke. He really helped me with my swing. I've tried not to let the (new bats) play a mental game with me. I just go out and play baseball."
■ Calloway County senior left-hander Dylan Dwyer, who signed with Kentucky, followed the Cats closely this spring as they earned a No. 1 national ranking. Dwyer came to Lexington to watch UK play LSU, and he saw the Cats play at Vanderbilt. "It's exciting. I can't wait to get here," Dwyer said. "They're really stepping up and showing they're a top contender in the SEC and the NCAA." Dwyer went 11-1 with a 0.40 ERA and had 161 strikeouts and 30 walks in 78 innings.
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■ Powell County Coach Chris Varney did his best to prepare his team for Woodford County ace Clinton Hollon's 90-mph fastball in the state tournament. Varney said he threw batting practice, but not from 60 feet, six inches. "An old man like me gets as close to the hitters as he can — about 15 feet away — and throws it as hard as I can," Varney said with a laugh. Powell County had 14 strikeouts against Hollon, but also had seven hits, including two each by Trey Marcum and Matt Pelfrey. The Pirates rallied from a 3-0 deficit with a seventh-inning rally against Jackets reliever Eli Boggess before losing 4-3. Varney was proud of his team's comeback. "I think we proved that a 14th Region school can come down here and compete," he said. "I know people don't realize there's good baseball the closer they get to the mountains, but there is."
■ St. Xavier athletic director Alan Donhoff, who was a standout left-handed pitcher for the Tigers in the early 1970s, volunteered to throw some batting practice last week to get St. X ready to face a lefty in the region. Donhoff said his arm held up fine, but his legs didn't fare so well. He said they started quivering from fatigue after a while. "People don't realize how much you need your legs to pitch," he said.
■ Doug Flynn has been busy calling baseball this spring. The former Bryan Station, UK and Cincinnati Reds infielder has been color man on every level. He was part of UK game telecasts with Dick Gabriel; he's filling in on Reds' games with Marty and Thom Brennaman, and this week he's doing the state baseball tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The Reds wanted Flynn to help them out this week, but Flynn told them he had to do the state tournament with Gary Ball. "I told them I made a commitment to my state," Flynn said with a laugh.
■ Bourbon County 6-foot-9 left-hander Chase Mullins, a UK signee, was taken by the Texas Rangers in the 24th round of the major-league draft this week. But he's not going pro. He's going to UK, where he's already started summer classes. Ann Shanks, Chase's mom, said two teams contacted them early in the week and told them they would take Chase in the second or third round. "But we as a family and our advisor had established a number, and both those slot dollars were below that number. So Chase said, 'No thank you, I'm going to UK.' To give up three years in the SEC was going to take a lot of money. He has no regrets. He's tickled to death about going to UK."
■ Henderson County junior Sam Higgs got his 28th career pitching victory in the first round of the state tournament. That's a lot of W's, but Higgs is only halfway to the state record. Danville's Paul Morse (now Admirals' coach) had 55 wins in his playing career 20 years ago.
■ While the state baseball tournament had only one top 10 team (No. 3 St. X) in the field, the state softball tournament is stacked with ranked teams: No. 3 Greenwood, No. 4 Mercy, No. 5 Christian County, No. 7 Green County, No. 9 Owensboro Catholic, No. 10 North Laurel, No 17 Lone Oak, No. 22 Oldham County and No. 25 Bullitt East.
■ Eastern baseball coach John Morris is stepping down after 11 years and eight consecutive 30-win seasons with the Eagles. "It was a very difficult decision considering the type of program we've built and how successful we've been, but it was the best decision," said Morris, who wants to spend more time with his wife and three young children. Morris had an overall record of 338-89 in 16 years at five schools.
■ It'll be interesting to see how many fans attend the Kentucky-Indiana all-star basketball games in Freedom Hall on Friday night. The Kentucky half of the series has had an image problem the past several years when it played the games in small venues, like Bellarmine's Knights Hall and the Frankfort Convention Center. But taking it back to a big college arena, like Freedom Hall, is a risk, too, if only a couple thousand people show up. The sponsoring Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation is making a concerted effort, along with the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches, to re-energize the series in Kentucky, but they've got their work cut out for them.
■ Randy McCoy has resigned as boys' basketball coach at University Heights Academy. He had a five-year record of 91-54, and in 2008 guided the Blazers to the All "A" state title and the Sweet Sixteen. McCoy told the Kentucky New Era that he is pursuing a coaching and administration position at another school, but wouldn't say where.
■ David Henley, who has coached boys' basketball at North Oldham the past two years and before that led Holmes to the 2009 state title, is the new coach at Eastern. He succeeds Jason Couch, who left the Eagles for Shelby County. Henley knows the competition will be much tougher in the 7th Region at Eastern, where Ballard and defending state champ Trinity are powers. "I've always wanted to coach in the 7th Region," Henley said. "It's kind of like going to the SEC in football. You'll probably consistently have good players, but so does everybody else."
■ Greenup County has hired Harold Tackett as its boys' basketball coach. Tackett was at Logan County the past four years, where he rebuilt the program and led the Cougars to a 21-11 record this past season.
■ Moore basketball coach Shedrick Jones is leaving the Mustangs to become coach at Southern. Jones was an assistant at Male under Bryce Hibbard, who is now principal at Southern.
■ Christian County has hired Josh Smith as its boys' basketball coach. He'll replace Tyler Smithhart, who left to take over at Henderson County. Smith is a former coach at Clarksville Academy, and led that school to the Tennessee Class A state title in 2010.
■ Transylvania men's basketball coach Brian Lane's 2012 signees include four Kentuckians — 5-8 guard Lowell Gordon of Anderson County; 6-0 guard Jacob Clark of North Oldham; 6-5 swing man Parker Stansberry of Dixie Heights, and 6-9, 290-pound center Joe Jennings of Bishop Brossart.