St. Xavier is the obvious choice to fill the favorite's role in the Kentucky National Insurance/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament that begins its week-long run at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on Monday.
The No. 3-rated Tigers are the only top-10 team left in the playoffs.
St. Xavier first-year coach Andy Porta noted that fact with his team — and added a word of caution — after it rallied to beat No. 7 Male 6-5 in the 7th Region finals on Friday night.
"I told the kids that people are going to talk like we're the favorites, but we can't look any further than the team (Mercer County) we play in the first round," Porta said. "Last year they shocked PRP with two outs in the seventh in the semifinals.
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"We'll go into the tournament confident, but definitely not with a big head. We know anything can happen in baseball."
Mercer County Coach Jeremy Shope appreciates that his Titans' surprising runner-up finish to Central Hardin last year provided an example to other underdogs.
"We showed that it can be done," he said. "We showed that if you go in believing in yourself and you get hot, anything can happen.
"It's amazing that a school our size, a little ol' country school, could compete for a state championship."
Central Hardin got a chance to defend its title by winning its third consecutive 5th Region title. The Bruins beat LaRue County 4-2 on Derek Westerfield's two-run homer in the seventh inning of the region finals.
Central Hardin, Mercer County, and St. Xavier aren't the only teams in the state tournament for the second year in a row. Also making encore appearances are Newport Central Catholic, North Oldham and Pleasure Ridge Park.
PRP returns only one everyday starter from last year, but Panthers Coach Bill Miller is used to building winners. He has guided PRP to four state titles and four runner-up finishes. Miller, with 967 career victories, is the second winningest coach in state history.
Six schools are in the state tournament for the first time: Bishop Brossart, Calloway County, Meade County, Powell County, South Warren and Woodford County.
Woodford County Coach Jeff Parrett has a strong 1-2 pitching combination in his son Logan Parrett and Clinton Hollon, who's rated the top junior pitcher in the nation by ESPN. They led the Jackets through the tough competition of the 11th Region.
"I gotta believe that was very similar to what we'll see in the state tournament," Jeff Parrett said. "High intensity all the time, and good crowds.
"There are so many things out of your control, so we have no expectations other than being ready to go, playing hard and having fun. But we do feel we have a chance, and that's a good thing."
Woodford County isn't the only team with strong pitching.
PRP is armed and dangerous as it showed by winning its three 6th Region games with shutouts behind Andrew Bramley, Hunter Johnson and Kyle Olliges. "Any time you've got pitching and pretty solid defense, you've got a chance," Miller said.
St. Xavier's pitching staff is led by Colin McFarland, Sam Melchior and Ben Britt, who've combined for 22 wins. But Porta said pitching depth doesn't guarantee success.
"I think we have the most solid pitching staff from top to bottom. But they all can't pitch at one time. One kid on the other team can get hot and shut you down."
Ashland Coach Jeff Wilcox has a pair of talented left-handers in Sam Hunter and Logan Salow. They have 15 victories and 233 strikeouts between them.
Wilcox, who guided Greenup County to a state runner-up finish in 1996, knows the formula for getting to Saturday's title game.
"If you perform well — hitting, pitching and playing defense — you can do it," he said. "Everybody has that opportunity. It's whoever makes the most of that opportunity."
Six schools in the tournament have combined to win 18 state titles: Ashland (1966, '67, 68); Central Hardin (2011); Henderson County (2000); Newport Catholic (1946, '50, '54, '56); PRP (1994, '95, '96, 2008), and St. Xavier (1942, '45, '49, '51, '81).