The first weekend of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament kicks off Thursday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. A field of 16 will be whittled down to four before the final champion of the 2016-17 school year is crowned in Lexington next Saturday.
Amid the ruckus of graduations and summer looming, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening on the diamond. Here’s a guide to help you quickly gain an upperhand.
Most folks in the know will be tuned into the McCracken County-Louisville Trinity tilt on Friday morning, and for good reason. The Shamrocks enter as the No. 1 team in MaxPreps’ latest computer rankings while the Mustangs are rated third. The final coaches’ poll of the season also had the Rocks ranked first with McCracken right on their heels.
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McCracken County got the “first-win” monkey off its back last season following back-to-back one-and-done appearances in the tournament. The Mustangs made the state semifinals in 2016, falling to eventual state champion St. Xavier, 3-2, in a nine-inning marathon.
Trinity upended St. X — which had won the 7th Region in five of the last seven seasons — last Thursday in the region finals, 7-6. The teams split their head-to-head meetings in the regular season but the Shamrocks kept the Tigers at bay despite allowing a five-run rally after starting pitcher Brandon Pfaadt, a Bellarmine signee, was pulled after 6 1/3 innings.
The winner’s reward for knocking off a highly-perceived opponent? A potential date with Scott County, MaxPreps’ No. 2 squad, on Saturday evening.
Your eyes do not deceive you: Caldwell County and Scott County again are matched up in the first round, giving fans a sequel to one of last year’s most thrilling opening-round contests. To beat it all, the first pitch is even scheduled for 6 p.m. again.
Scott County claimed its first state-tournament win, 1-0, with a walk-off line drive by Cooper Robb in the eighth inning last season. Both teams were making their first official state-tournament appearance.
Four of the 11 Caldwell players who received state-tournament innings have graduated, but not Shane Burns, who struck out eight Cardinals and pitched 6 1/3 innings of scoreless baseball. The junior leads the state with an ERA of 0.50 and is seventh (third among tournament pitchers) with 112 strikeouts.
Scott County also lost four seniors who played in last year’s tournament opener but comes in with a stronger record (32-7-1 opposed to 27-10) and a couple of underclassmen, sophomore Jordan Fox and junior Sam Sutton, who gained valuable experience on the Whitaker mound last season.
Marion County, Muhlenberg County and Knox Central are making their first official state-tournament appearances this week. Each of them plays on the tournament’s opening day, too.
The Knights, ranked 23rd coming into the week, were 3-7 over their final 10 games coming into the postseason, in which they’ve outscored their opponents 40-4. Marion’s closest contest in the last two weeks was its 20th District opener against Adair County, a 1-0 decision. It’ll open against Hazard, a Class A program that’s becoming a tournament mainstay; the Bulldogs are in Lexington for the third time in the last four seasons.
Knox Central had 10 losses heading into May but went 10-2 down the stretch, outlasting North Laurel, 6-5, in an eight-inning showdown for the 13th Region championship. Jacob Nelson, the Panthers’ senior left fielder, is among the state leaders with a .500 batting average and a .888 slugging percentage. Per stats reported to the KHSAA, he’s one of only 12 players in the state to not have committed a fielding error this season.
Muhlenberg County, which opened in the 2009-10 school year, became the fourth unique program to represent the 3rd Region in as many years after defeating Daviess County, 5-4, in the region finals last week. It was a long time in the making for the Mustangs, who played in the championship game in the first three years of their existence but hadn’t returned since. They hadn’t defeated Daviess County since 2012.
Pleasure Ridge Park is back in the state-tournament field for the first time since 2013, ending a three-year absence with a 1-0 victory over DeSales in the 6th Region finals last Thursday.
Bill Miller, the longtime Panthers skipper, is the state’s all-time wins leader and is one of just three coaches in state history to win 1,000 or more games. His career record stands at 1,128-304; that’s a 78.8 career win percentage in 38 years of coaching.
The PRP graduate was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer in Sept. 2015 that has since went into remission. His Panthers are one of just two programs in the field to have won a state title along with Franklin-Simpson, which took its only crown in 1991. PRP has won five state championships, third most in history, and finished as runners-up four times.
This year’s edition is 36-5 ranked fourth in the state by MaxPreps. It will meet No. 9 Franklin-Simpson in its opener. The Wildcats are in the field for the first time since 1999.
▪ Due to conflicts with the Lexington Legends’ schedule, the semifinals and finals will be played earlier in the day on Friday and Saturday instead of in the evening. This is the second year the tournament has been split over a two-week period, which was done to alleviate pitching concerns.
▪ The first two rounds of the tournament will not be available for streaming, but the semifinals and championship game will be available through the NFHS Network, a subscription-based service accessible through its own website or KHSAA.tv. PrepSpin, a local streaming organization, produces those broadcasts.
Audio-only streams of the semifinals and finals also will be available for free at mixlr.com/khsaa.
▪ The KHSAA offers an official tournament program through its website. You can access that at bit.ly/2rRfXOL.
▪ McCracken’s eight seniors help comprise the school’s first class to have begun their high school careers at McCracken County, which opened in the 2013-14 school year. The Mustangs have played in every state tournament since opening, but among the seniors, only Trent Shelby was listed on each postseason roster.
▪ In addition to Caldwell County and Scott County, three other teams are making just their second appearance at state: Boyle County, Clark County and Simon Kenton.
▪ Simon Kenton’s first trip almost ended in a championship. Impressive pitching performances got them one-run wins over Southwestern (2-1) and Hazard (1-0 in 10 innings) in the first two rounds before their bats woke up for an 11-1 win over South Laurel. Their Cinderella story ended after St. Xavier scored three runs in the top of the seventh for a 5-2 victory in the finals.
▪ No school in the field went longer between appearances than Boyle County, which is here for the first time since 1974. The Rebels lost to Paducah Tilghman, 1-0, in their first game that year.
▪ Clark County, ranked 22nd this week, lost 9-0 to Central Hardin in its only previous trip to state in 2011.
▪ Johnson Central standout Geordan Blanton is looking to complete a triple crown of sorts. The senior, who’s signed to play baseball at Marshall University, was a star on the Golden Eagles’ state championship football team in December and won the 160-pound wrestling championship in February.
▪ Three McCracken County pitchers — Luke Seed (0.63), Caleb Reinhardt (0.92) and Mason Vinyard (0.96) — own top-13 ERAs among schools reporting stats to the KHSAA. Caldwell County boasts three of the top five in Burns, Gabe East (0.60) and Ty Ramey (0.64).
▪ Caldwell-Scott isn’t the only repeat matchup from last year’s first round; No. 5 Johnson Central and No. 21 Highlands met in the tournament’s kickoff game last season. Johnson Central won that battle of the birds, 6-2.
▪ Aside from owning the coolest name in the field, Boyle County’s Ty Dragan leads all tournament participants with 11 home runs this season (third in the state). Blanton and Rowan County’s Harlan Carter each have hit eight long balls.
▪ Carter leads all players in the tournament with 46 RBI in 144 plate appearances. Vikings sophomore AJ Hacker is fourth among tournament pitchers with 108 strikeouts behind PRP’s Garrett Schmeltz (139), Marion County’s Andrew Spalding (128) and Burns.
WHITAKER BANK/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament
What: Annual tournament to decide Kentucky’s high school baseball state champion
Where: Whitaker Bank Ballpark, Lexington
When: June 8-10; June 17-18
Tickets: $10 general admission; $14 home plate (Prices are per individual session through the Lexington Legends website at bit.ly/2sdmcg9)
Simon Kenton (24-15) vs. Clark Countny (23-9); Muhlenberg County (27-9) vs. Rowan County (25-14)
Hazard (30-8) vs. Marion County (26-6); Boyle County (27-11) vs. Knox Central (22-12-1)
McCracken County (32-5) vs. Trinity (32-5-2); Scott County (32-7-1) vs Caldwell County (26-9)
Highlands (25-12) vs. Johnson Central (31-7-1); Pleasure Ridge Park (36-5) vs. Franklin-Simpson (31-5)
Session one (Thursday): Hazard vs. Marion County, 11 a.m.; Muhlenberg County vs. Rowan County, 1:30 p.m.
Session two (Thursday): Boyle County vs. Knox Central, 6 p.m.; Simon Kenton vs. Clark County, 8:30 p.m.
Session three (Friday): McCracken County vs. Trinity, 11 a.m.; Pleasure Ridge Park vs. Franklin-Simpson, 1:30 p.m.
Session four (Friday): Scott County vs. Caldwell County, 6 p.m.; Highlands vs. Johnson Central, 8:30 p.m.
Session five (Saturday): Simon Kenton-Clark County winner vs. Muhlenberg County-Rowan County winner, 11 a.m.; Hazard-Marion County winner vs. Boyle County-Knox Central winner, 1:30 p.m.
Session six (Saturday): McCracken County-Trinity winner vs. Scott County-Caldwell County winner, 6 p.m.; Highlands-Johnson Central winner vs. Pleasure Ridge Park-Franklin-Simpson winner, 8:30 p.m.
Session seven (Friday, June 16): Top half semifinal, 11 a.m.; bottom half semifinal, 1:30 p.m.
Session eight (Saturday, June 17): Finals, 1 p.m.