An insurance run in the top of the seventh inning proved crucial for McCracken County in its bid for a fourth straight semifinal trip at the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament.
The Mustangs defeated Rowan County, 2-1, to snap the Vikings’ state-best 31-game win streak and reach the next round. They’ll play either Hazard or Trinity, whose quarterfinal match-up originally set to follow Thursday was re-scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark due to rain.
McCracken County led 1-0 from almost the onset: Ben Higdon hit a double on the first pitch delivered by AJ Hacker, the winner of this year’s Mr. Baseball and Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year awards, and advanced to third on a ground-out, before scoring on a two-out double down the first-base line by Logan Verble.
Rowan County led off the bottom of the first with a walk and single but from there saw its next 14 batters retired; a streak ended on a two-out single in the bottom of the fifth by Mason Moore, who didn’t score. Matthew Gagliano walked to lead off the bottom of the sixth but again Rowan couldn’t come up with the run.
A light drizzle entered the area and ended the scoring drought in the seventh inning. Grant Godwin hit a two-out single to score Elijah Wheat, giving McCracken County a two-run cushion. The Mustangs loaded the bases but left them full.
Rowan County (39-4) quickly found itself on the brink of defeat after a ground out and foul out. Chase Alderman singled, then pinch-hitter Aiden Leuenberger doubled down the third-base line to get the Vikings on the board. Ryan Mullen, Rowan’s nine-hole hitter, drew a walk after an 11-pitch at-bat, but Higdon caught a fly ball near the bleachers in right field to end the rally.
Godwin was 0-for-3 before what turned out to be the game-deciding hit.
“That was big,” McCracken County Coach Geno Miller said. “Grant kind of up to that point had been having a rough night, and man he stepped up. That was huge for us.”
Hacker went 5 and 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and a walk but striking out eight. Jacob Ehling, his McCracken counterpart, went 6 and 2/3 innings with six strikeouts, four hits and a walk before Dylan Schneider came to the mound to relieve him after Leuenberger’s RBI.
“That was a tough spot,” Miller said of Schneider coming in so late. “Rowan County’s a heck of a team, and it seemed like we are gonna (be like), ‘Hey, we’re gonna go, two outs and two up right off the bat,’ and then they put some things together because their kids have a lot of fight in them.”
Despite its knack for getting there, McCracken has never advanced beyond the semifinals to the championship.
“This team is so overachieving this year,” Miller said. “We have some really good kids and young players, and to be able to go back to the semifinals again, man, it’s unbelievable.
“But in the same sense, we’ve got to find a way to get one more step. These guys are great. Whether it works out or not, they’re gonna give it everything they got.”