The high school sports year comes to a close next week with the Forcht Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark (June 3-8), and the Rawlings/KHSAA State Fast-pitch Softball Tournament at Jack C. Fisher Park in Owensboro (June 6-8). It'll be Auld Lang Syne for the players, especially the seniors. But it'll be Auld Anxiety for the parents as they watch their kids try to win a state title.
■ Old habits — winning and clinging to superstitions — are hard to break. Just ask Harrison County baseball coach Mac Whitaker. He guided his Thorobreds to another 10th Region title this week — their 21st in his 36 years as coach. They'll be in Whitaker Bank Ballpark next week trying to win their fifth state championship.
After Harrison County beat Campbell County 1-0 in the region finals at Covington Scott on Wednesday night (Jordan Martin was the winning pitcher and drove in the only run), Whitaker had the team bus drive through the parking lot of the Arby's in northern Kentucky where the team ate before their Monday and Tuesday games.
It isn't that Whitaker has a fast-food fetish. He's just superstitious. It all started in 1984 when Harrison County made a surprising run to the state finals before losing to East Carter. The Breds ate at McDonald's after their post-season games, and a habit was born. Ever since, their playoff ritual has included eating at McDonald's after games, or at least driving through the parking lot to satisfy the superstition. "This year we changed to Arby's because it was right there, and they were so nice to us," Whitaker said. Maybe so, but I'll bet a couple quarter-pounders with cheese that you might spot the Harrison County team bus looking for some golden arches in Lexington next week.
■ Bob Mantooth of Apollo is another baseball coach with a long history of winning. His Eagles won the 3rd Region for the 10th time this week, and they'll play Mercer County in Monday morning's opening game of the state tournament. Mantooth has been coaching 37 years, the last 30 at Apollo, and his teams have won 867 games. Apollo has reached the state semifinals four times. Mantooth keeps at it because he enjoys it. "The Lord's blessed me to do something I love for so long," he said. "If it's in your blood and you're passionate, you want to keep doing it."
■ Tates Creek is in the state tournament for the first time under Dom Fucci, but this won't be Fucci's first state rodeo. He guided Lexington Catholic to the state final four in 1994 and '95. In '94, Lexington Catholic lost to Pleasure Ridge Park 3-1 in the semifinals. PRP ace (and current Los Angeles Angel) Scott Downs had 15 strikeouts against the Knights. In '95, Lexington Catholic lost to Bowling Green 7-1 in the semifinals as Purples ace T.J. Freeman had eight K's.
■ When Mercer County won the 12th Region baseball title for the first time in 2011, the players reacted as if they'd won the lottery. The Titans went on to finish state runner-up that year. They made it back to Whitaker Bank Ballpark last year to prove they weren't a one-hit wonder. Mercer County showed again this week that its program has staying power. It won the region for the third year in a row by mercy-ruling Southwestern 13-3 in the finals. Coach Jeremy Shope said he noticed a difference in his team's reaction this time around from after its ground-breaking victory in 2011. "It wasn't like two years ago when the kids were going nuts and thinking the season was over," he said. "This time it was more like, 'We won, now let's go win the whole thing.'" Mercer County has only a few returning starters from last year, including J.T. Long, Jon Banks and John Ingram. To three-peat as region champ with a revamped lineup shows the Titans have established a tradition. "Once we got a taste of winning, the kids have passed it on," Shope said.
■ Drew Harrington of No. 1 Central Hardin is Gatorade's Kentucky baseball player of the year. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior left-handed pitcher/first baseman has signed with Louisville. Harrington led the Bruins (32-5) to a fourth consecutive 5th Region title. He is 9-1, with a school-record 131 strikeouts in 71 innings. He's also hitting .440. Central Hardin, which won the 2011 state title, beat Nelson County 10-0 in the region finals.
■ The night after his pursuit of a perfect game came up short because of an injury, Woodford County senior right-hander Logan Parrett was on hand at the 11th Region finals to accept his all-tournament team award. Parret had struck out 13 of the 17 Scott County batters he faced in the region semifinals Tuesday night when he felt a twinge in his right forearm. He threw one more pitch, "and it hurt a little bit." Four outs shy of a perfect game, and his team ahead 2-0, Parrett left the game after talking it over with his coach (and dad), Jeff Parrett, and the team trainer. Logan said it was the toughest moment he's experienced in baseball. "It killed me," he said. "I just wish I could've stayed in there and helped my team." It hurt even more when Scott County rallied to beat the defending state champs 3-2. Parrett, who will follow in his dad's footsteps and play at the University of Kentucky, doesn't think his injury is serious. He said a preliminary exam showed "no broken bones or damage. I think I might've pulled something in my forearm below my elbow." He's scheduled to have an MRI on Tuesday. Parrett also flirted with a perfect game in last year's region semifinals. He retired the first 19 batters before Madison Central's Cole Metcalfe singled with one out in the seventh. Madison Central wound up tying it with two runs in the seventh, but the Yellowjackets won it 3-2 in the eighth.
■ Madison Southern first-year baseball coach Dusty Hon wore his work clothes — his state policeman uniform — to the region draw last week. Hon, whose Eagles upset Bryan Station for their first win in the region since 1998, is an administrative sergeant in the Richmond state police post. He began working there as a dispatcher in 1993, became a trooper in 1998 and also did undercover work for a while. Hon played his senior year of high school baseball for Mac Whitaker at Harrison County in 1988. Living in Madison County the last 20 years, Hon said he "got fed up" with the way things were going with Madison Southern baseball. "There's a good amount of talent in the south end of the county, and nobody was doing anything with it. The program was in horrible condition." One of his assistant coaches, Greg Newman, is also a state policeman, so the players don't lack for authority figures. Hon said he's committed to building Madison Southern baseball's respectability. "I'm part of the community, and I love baseball," he said.
■ Most of the high-rated softball teams are still alive in the playoffs. No. 1 Greenwood (38-0), trying to become the first undefeated state champ, met No. 8 Bowling Green in the 4th Region finals Thursday night. No. 2 Lone Oak won the 1st; No. 3 Mercy played Butler in the 6th finals; No. 4 Scott County met Woodford County in the 11th finals; No. 6 Owensboro Catholic won the 3rd; No. 10 Central Hardin won the 5th; No. 12 Oldham County won the 8th; No. 13 Boyle County won the 12th, and No. 16 Livingston Central won the 2nd.
■ Paul Laurence Dunbar's 2003 state championship baseball team will have a 10th anniversary reunion July 12-13. Former players, coaches and their families are invited. Contact Craig Dunn at (859) 806-2204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
■ Jacob Thomson of Louisville Holy Cross, who two weeks ago set state meet records in the 1,600 (4:09.99) and 3,200 meters (9:07.17), finished 13th out of 15 runners in the adidas High School Dream Mile in New York last weekend. Thomson ran the mile in 4:12.06. Ben Saarel of Park City, Utah, won in 4:02.72.
■ Former college and high school basketball coach Guy Strong, 82, is still "aces" on the golf course. Strong had his ninth hole-in-one on Monday. He got it on the 15th hole at Southwind in Winchester. Strong has had five holes-in-one at Southwind, including three on No. 15. "The good Lord smiles on old codgers," Strong said.
■ Kyle Eades, who was interim boys' basketball coach at Christian County last season, had the "interim" tag removed this week and will be the Colonels' boss again next season.
■ Perry Central senior Dalton Cornett, who had more than 1,000 points and 800 rebounds in his career, signed with Pikeville.
■ B.J. Elswick, who played on Elkhorn City's 1964 state championship football team and coached the Elkhorn City girls' basketball team to the Sweet Sixteen semifinals in 1990, died last week of cancer. He was 64.
■ New artificial turf is being installed on the football/soccer fields at Paul Laurence Dunbar and Tates Creek. Both high schools got new facilities with artificial turf in 2002, and 11 years of wear and tear left the fields matted. Tates Creek Athletics Director Joe Ruddell said the fields are on a 10-year "replacement schedule." The work will be done in time for pre-season football and soccer practice in July.