Perhaps no baseball shadow looms larger than the one cast by Madison Central’s 1982 team, the one that went 40-0 and brought home the program’s only state title. This year’s team has heard a lot about that squad — assistant coach Tommy Gross played on it — as well as Central’s overall heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s.
But that’s in the past and these Indians are much more concerned about building a legacy of their own. They made strides in that department last season by winning the region title for the first time since 1993 and representing the 11th Region in the state tournament. However, their stay was short after an upstart, unranked Collins team offed the No. 5 Indians in the first round.
“Us losing last year was terrible but it was also really good for us to learn to never take anything for granted,” said Kyle Kelsey, a senior pitcher. “Seeing all those seniors crushed after that loss, that was terrible. We all played with those guys all our life.”
Madison Central’s 14-1 record is good for a region-best 93.3 win percentage and a No. 7 ranking in the latest coaches’ poll. But rankings don’t mean much to the Indians, who are solely focused on constantly improving themselves.
“It’s a long journey,” Coach Steve Roof said. “We’re trying not to get caught up in the moment.”
Several seniors departed, but the class of 2016 readily assumed its position on the leadership ladder. Fostering a family-first attitude has been as crucial to the Indians’ rise as any pitch or run scored.
Roof said this crop of seniors might as well be assistant coaches given how maturely they’ve responded not only to his staff’s instruction, but in how they’ve treated one another through it all.
“The other day we took out a starter and he immediately started cheering for the guy who took his place,” Roof said. “They really buy into family and pull for each other.”
They’ve always been about leaving their own mark on the program, Roof said. Bridging a gap to the past wasn’t as important as having people see the words “Madison Central” across their chest and know right then that they’re about to get a tough out.
Kelsey thought, before last year at least, people considered Central an underdog, especially within the region. That slight still rears its head because of the “country” label some attribute to it and other schools near, but not in, Lexington.
The tables have turned a bit, though. Winning in the polls doesn’t count for much, but it does indicate respect among your peers and can sometimes build a mental advantage.
“My sophomore year, we were looked down upon a lot and it’s nice having a little bit of an upper hand in the beginning of the season,” said Joe Holbrook, a senior utility man. “But we have to keep going through the season strong.”
Central’s preferred method of staying on task? Practices that are more taxing than any game. That’s another area in which Roof’s seniors have led with their actions.
“They play hard and practice hard,” Roof said. “They have brought our practices to a different level. It’s really fun to sit back and watch.”
Several seniors brought up “21 Outs,” a practice game in which the team must come up with 21 straight infield outs — as are needed in a regulation-length high school game — without committing an error. If someone screws up, it’s a lap to the foul pole and back. Then the whole team begins anew in the “first inning.”
Senior outfielder Josh Wright said the Indians once finished the drill in under 10 minutes without an error. “It usually takes forever ’cause we just get tired and make a lot of errors,” he said with a laugh.
Wright was one of many to suggest the miserable feeling after some practices is pushing the team toward something greater and bringing the players together. Whether the season ends in euphoria or another heartbreak, those bonds will outlive either feeling.
“We won the region last year and that was great, but it sucked getting beat in the state. It really did,” senior pitcher Trey Sexton said. “So that’s definitely our goal.
“But it’s really to just have fun together as a family. That’s all we think about. We preach being a family.”