Bill Miller and his Pleasure Ridge Park baseball team carry themselves with such determination and confidence that it sometimes obscures just how much they care about and love the game.
But after PRP outlasted Mercer County 3-2 in eight innings to win the Forcht Bank/KHSAA State Tournament at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on Saturday night, the Panthers let loose with their feelings and emotions.
"I've never cried after a baseball game before in my life," PRP senior Blake Stewart said. "I can't explain how excited I am. It's just an amazing feeling."
Stewart had reason to be excited. With the score tied 2-2 in the top of the eighth, he led off with a triple down the right-field line. With one out, Joe Hatcher's squeeze bunt brought Stewart home with the decisive run.
Hunter Johnson, the losing pitcher in the Panthers' losses in the state tournament the previous two years, was red-eyed and sobbing, too.
"This means more than anything to me," the senior pitcher/first baseman said.
Miller, the gruff, no-nonsense coach, showed his soft side, too. He had tears in his eyes as he went around hugging his players.
For Miller, the winningest coach in state history with 1,115 victories, this was his fifth state title. That ties him for the most with the late Ralph Kimmel of Manual.
"Records have never meant anything to me, but people mean something to me, especially my players and coaches," Miller said, choking on his words. "I'm just so happy for them."
None of PRP's previous championships came any tougher than this one. The 3,452 fans — the majority of them from Mercer County — were treated to a classic.
This was the first extra-inning title game since PRP lost to Lexington Catholic 4-2 in nine innings in 1999.
Mercer County, which lost to Central Hardin 21-2 in the 2011 finals, pushed PRP until the final out.
"What a hard-fought game," Mercer County Coach Jeremy Shope said. "I'm so proud of our guys for believing until the final out. They believed they could be the best in the state, and just came up a couple runs short."
Both teams got great pitching performances.
PRP's senior Kyle Olliges, who had a complete-game shutout of Apollo in the first round, again went the distance against Mercer County.He gave up seven hits and had 10 strikeouts.
"It was a thrill to throw in a game like this," Olliges said. "I'm lucky it fell on my side."
Jackson Stoeckinger, a junior left-hander, was terrific for Mercer County. He worked into the eighth. He gave up nine hits, two earned runs and had five K's.
"I didn't feel I had my best stuff, but it was good enough to compete and hang in there," Stoeckinger said.
Shope's opinion of his pitcher's performance: "Jackson was phenomenal."
PRP went up 1-0 in the third on Ryan Hart's single, a bunt single by Josh Beams, a sacrifice bunt, and Alex Miller's RBI fielder's choice.
The Titans answered in the bottom of the inning as John Ingram's double drove in Dylan Logue. Mercer County had runners at second and third with no outs, but Olliges got out of the jam with a pair of K's and a fly-out.
PRP regained the lead in the fourth when Hart singled in Kiron McKenzie, a pinch-runner for Hatcher. But the Titans tied it in the fifth thanks to a pair of PRP errors that let Layne Peavler score.
Olliges slammed the door after that, and his teammates got him the run he so desperately wanted in the eighth.
"I was absolutely ecstatic to see (Stewart) standing on third (after his triple), and so glad we scored," Olliges said.
Miller wasn't surprised by Olliges' eight-inning effort.
"He's been a warrior all year for us. He was the guy we wanted with the ball tonight."
Miller also paid tribute to Mercer County.
"They play the game the right way," he said. "They play hard every out. They're just a pleasure to play."
Shope expected his team to give PRP a battle.
"This really hurts because we really thought we'd win this thing," he said. "But we'll be able to look back and appreciate all the great things we accomplished this year."
Joe Hatcher (MVP), Blake Stewart, Kyle Olliges of PRP; J.T. Long, John Ingram, Layne Peavler of Mercer County; Troy Riggs, Drew Harrington of Central Hardin; Sam Higgs, Justin Cessna of Henderson County; Brandon Kendall of Harrison County; Austin Clemons of St. Xavier; Buddy Johnson of Collins; Trey Stapleton of Prestonsburg.