The season didn’t end the way Rowan County wanted, but with the news of their coach’s leukemia diagnosis this week, the loss of one game couldn’t diminish this year’s accomplishments for the Vikings.
Muhlenberg County outlasted Rowan 4-3 in nine innings as a bases-loaded error let in the winning run in the second extra-innings game of the KHSAA State Baseball Tournament’s opening day on Thursday. Marion County topped Hazard 7-4 in an eight-inning Game 1.
“There was a lot on our minds, but the kids battled today. That was a tough one right there,” Rowan assistant Rob Ward said.
Second-year head coach Keith Prater couldn’t be with the Vikings at Whitaker Bank Ballpark after being diagnosed on Tuesday. So, he watched from his room at the University of Kentucky’s Markey Cancer Center, and he texted with his coaches the entire game. The players wore orange leukemia awareness T-shirts for warmups and many of the fans wore #keithscorner T-shirts in honor of Prater.
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After Rowan executed a perfect relay throw to gun down a potential winning run in the eighth, the team huddled around one of the coach’s phones one the field so Prater could address the team and root them on.
“He was telling them, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go. Anchor down, baby!’ Ward said of the face-time huddle. “He’s proud of them no matter what happens. … It’s tough to see them a little down, but they need to hold their heads up because they just did something that not a lot of people have done at Rowan County. It’s been 34 years since a team has played in a state tournament from Rowan County.”
The game included four errors that keyed each team’s scoring. Rowan jumped in front 3-2 in the fifth as a sacrifice bunt attempt by Shane Taylor drew an errant throw into right field from Muhlenberg starter Nick Casey. Matthew Gagliano tied it and Harlan Carter made it all the way around from first base to give Rowan the lead.
Muhlenberg answered in the bottom of the fifth putting two runners on with a walk and a hit batsmen. When Rowan’s Jacob Whitmer fielded a grounder to third and tried to forced an out at second, his throw sailed into right field allowing Muhlenberg’s Payton Lipe score the tying run.
The score remained 3-3 until the ninth when Lipe and Nick Casey got back-to-back singles to put Gagliano, the Vikings’ reliever under pressure. Rowan intentionally walked Whitmer to limit the chances of a potential squeeze play, but Myers’ hard grounder to short was mishandled allowing the winning run to score. Myers was hitless on the day.
“I liked the look in Myers’ eye. He wanted the bat. He wanted to swing and it just worked out for us,” Muhlenberg coach Brad Rogles said. “He put a good swing on a fastball and got the first strike he saw. The kid almost made a really nice play, but it worked out in our favor.”
Marion County 7, Hazard 4 (8 innings): Andrew Spalding’s two-out single brought in the go-ahead score and sparked a three-run rally for the Knights in the eighth inning.
With the game tied a 4-4, Cody Browning led off the eighth with a single to center field, but a line out and a fielder’s choice hit into by Dalton Hammond appeared to snuff Marion’s opportunity. A wild pitch from Hazard reliever Devin Morris allowed Hammond to take second. Cameron Nalley followed with a walk, setting up Spalding.
“I was struggling all (day) to get the ball to do really anything, so the last at bat I went up there thinking ‘if I see a fastball, I’m going to hit it,” Spalding said. “Honestly, we just played hard, kept our minds in it and pulled it out.”
Spalding started the game on the mound for the Knights, but was pulled in the sixth as the Bulldogs erased a 4-1 deficit. It was another two-out rally that let the Bulldogs in it as Spalding got two pop outs, but Devin Morris and Rudy Akemon followed with singles and James Shoptaw drew a walk to load the bases. Dalton Baker singled to center to make it 4-2 and end Spalding’s day on the mound.
Nine-hole hitter Kyle Johnson doubled down the left field line off Marion reliever Luke Thomas to bring in two runs and tie the game a 4-4, and ultimately send it to an extra frame.
11 a.m.: McCracken Co. vs. Trinity
1:30 p.m.: PRP vs. Franklin-Simpson
6 p.m.: Scott Co. vs. Caldwell Co.
8:30 p.m.: Highlands vs. Johnson Central, 8:30 p.m.
11 a.m.: Simon Kenton-Clark Co. winner vs. Muhlenberg Co.
1:30 p.m.: Marion Co. vs. Knox Central
6 p.m.: McCracken Co.-Trinity winner vs. Scott Co.-Caldwell Co. winner
8:30 p.m.: Highlands-Johnson Central winner vs. PRP-Franklin-Simpson winner