High School Sports

'This is not too big for them at all.' Tiny school's trip to semis no fluke.

Hazard pitcher Devin Morris had 16 strikeouts in a first-round win against Corbin.
Hazard pitcher Devin Morris had 16 strikeouts in a first-round win against Corbin. swalker@herald-leader.com

Two days before his team's appearance in the state baseball semifinals, Hazard baseball coach John Meehan was doing the same thing he did two days before the Bulldogs' state-tournament opener: baking some beans.

Hazard last week held a send-off cookout before its players ventured to Lexington, so baseball superstition insisted it do the same this week.

"Right in the middle of practice we’ll stop, eat, and then we’ll go back to practice," Meehan said during a phone interview with the Herald-Leader on Wednesday.

The Bulldogs, in the midst of their seventh state-tournament appearance, will face No. 1 St. Xavier in the semifinals of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament on Friday. No. 4 McCracken County and No. 10 Highlands will square off in Friday's second semifinal, leaving Hazard as the sole survivor among teams unranked in the final 2018 coaches poll.

It's also the smallest remaining program by a mile; Hazard had 166 boys enrolled at the beginning of the 2017-18 school year. Highlands had 474 boys while McCracken County (1,012) and St. X (1,341) dwarf both.

In at least one way, though, low enrollment has generated an advantage for the Bulldogs, who've played in five of the last six All "A" Classic state tournaments, including championship appearances this year and in 2016. A few members of this year's unit were on the roster as far back as 2014; between the All "A" and KHSAA state tournament trips in four of the last five years, some players have played almost 20 games at Whitaker Bank Ballpark and most have double-digit appearances.

Familiarity with the venue — significantly larger than most high school parks — is invaluable.

"Any team that goes down to Whitaker Bank Ballpark and looks at that fence and tries to jack it out, they’re gonna have a hard time winning," Meehan said. " ... Nobody's been on that field as much as we have."

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Hazard first baseman James Shoptaw, right, tried to tag out Corbin's Case Estep on a pickoff attempt. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Inside baseball

Hazard connected for 17 hits in its first two state-tournament games last weekend. The Bulldogs under Meehan were 1-3 in state-tournament games (1-1 in 2014, 0-1 in 2016 and 2017) coming into this year's tournament, combining for just 22 hits in those contests.

Meehan moved batting practice indoors this season for the first time in his 24 years coaching.

"We refused to go outside and hit this year because we felt like we had the opportunity to win in the All 'A' and maybe at the end of the postseason, and you have to know how to hit at Whitaker," Meehan said.

Hazard's coaching staff has emphasized small-ball tactics to get an edge. The Bulldogs don't have terrific team speed, Meehan said, but are good enough at the basic fundamentals to move guys around.

"In the past we couldn’t hit in that park. This team can hit," Meehan said. "We can hit it over your head and we can bunt it. We’re not a great running team but we’ll hit-and-run you over, we’ll bunt you over, we’ll squeeze you."

The Bulldogs used three consecutive squeezes to help make a laugher of a tight ball game in the 14th Region finals, eliminating rival Perry County Central, 9-1, seven days after the Commodores beat them for the 54th District title.

Empty in-game sac flys and infield pop-ups during the regular season resulted in players running laps. After the All "A" Classic, the penalty became hill runs.

Hazard will shoot for the skies when the opportunity arises, though. Junior Andy Baker and sophomore Trajon Campbell both hit homers at Whitaker during the All "A." Bryson Parks, a senior who transferred from Breathitt County and plays in left, is fourth in the state with 10 home runs, all of which Meehan described as "legitimate."

"He hit one in the fifth inning to tie the game in the region that’s still going," Meehan said with a laugh. "Everybody's been stepping up. That's baseball."

Hazard pitcher Devin Morris spoke to Coach John Meehan in the first inning during their first-round game against Corbin. Morris ended up throwing 109 pitches and gave up just one run in a 5-1 victory. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Socks and shoes

Improved hitting has been a boon for the Bulldogs, but no team makes it to the final weekend without a great battery. Senior ace Devin Morris and junior catcher Dalton Baker help Hazard check that box.

Morris went the distance in Hazard's first-round win over Corbin, striking out 16 and allowing just three hits. Bailey Blair, a junior who's quarterbacked the football team each of the last two seasons, got the win in relief of freshman Jarrett Napier in a 7-5 upset of No. 6 Greenup County last Saturday.

If Hazard can get another performance like that from Morris, Meehan loves his team's chances of advancing to the finals. The Bulldogs have reached that stage once before, in 1980, when Meehan was playing for them. He fondly recalls their walk-off victory over Trinity in the semifinals that season.

That experience, and this team's experience, assures Meehan that a perceived "David vs. Goliath" tale can end in favor of the little guy. At this point, St. Xavier having 1,200 more boys than Hazard doesn't matter.

"You know what? They can only put nine on the field," Meehan said. "And that’s what we’re gonna do. 'They put their socks and shoes on,' I tell em, 'just like you.' ...

"This is not too big for them at all. I hope St. X plays their greatest game and I hope we play our greatest game. Let’s see what happens. That’s how good I feel about our team."

Hazard third baseman Bailey Blair flinched as a pitch came in close during Thursday's game against Corbin. Silas Walker swalker@herald-leader.com

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