McCracken County is an obvious favorite in the Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament that begins its six-day run Monday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The Mustangs, who have been No. 1 in the coaches' poll since mid-April, are undefeated (23-0) against Kentucky opponents, own an 18-game winning streak, and have the deep pitching staff that's needed to survive a week-long competition.
"I wouldn't trade my team with anybody," Coach Geno Miller said. "We've had a great year, played a great schedule, and prepared the way it needed to be done.
"But there's a lot of talent and a lot of good teams in this tournament, and we know it's going to be tough."
No. 5 Madison Central, No. 6 Elizabethtown, No. 7 South Laurel, No. 12 South Warren, No. 14 Apollo, No. 18 North Bullitt and No. 20 Highlands also made it to Lexington.
Defending state champion St. Xavier, ranked No. 3, was upset by Ballard in the 7th Region finals. No. 2 Lafayette and No. 4 Lexington Cathollic were upset victims, too.
Miller knows the unpredictable nature of baseball. His Mustangs came into the state last year as one of the favorites, but they lost to Hazard in the opening game.
"One of the things people don't understand is when you get in a tournament like this, you have to have a solid team, but you also have to catch some breaks," he said.
Good pitching is a must. McCracken County has that with a team earned run average of 1.00. Sixteen of its 33 victories have been shutouts.
The Mustangs' staff is led by Cole Womack, Keegan Breese, Ryan Garner and Josh Scheer. "We don't have the marquee Division I arm, but these guys can compete," Miller said.
Womack, also a standout shortstop, has signed with Western Kentucky. Breese, a junior who also doubles as an infielder, has committed to Murray State.
Highlands, McCracken County's first-round opponent, is pitching-rich, too.
The Bluebirds' staff is led by Mitchell Jones, who beat Lexington Catholic 1-0 in eight innings, and Ricky Raisor, who tossed a two-hitter against Cincinnati Elder. Highlands has also gotten strong playoff performances from Joseph Martin and Ethan Doty.
Coach Jeremy Baioni said his team isn't caught up with facing No. 1 McCracken County: "We don't worry about our opponent. We focus on what we do, no matter who we play. We'll try to get quality at-bats, make the routine plays and throw strikes."
Greenup County isn't ranked, but it has shown it can play with anybody. The Musketeers have won their last 22 games against Kentucky opponents, a streak that includes wins over St. X, Tates Creek and Johnson Central in the Fayette County Invitational Tournament.
"That weekend gave us a boost in confidence, and I think we've built on it," Coach Greg Logan said.
The Musketeers, who don't have a senior on their roster, won the 16th Region with lock-down pitching (led by Ethan Coldiron and Jaxon Keeton) and flawless defense. They also have one of the top catchers in the state in junior Brody Shoupe.
Greenup County plays 15th Region champ Lawrence County in the first round. They split two games during the regular season.
Lawrence County Coach Travis Feltner is pushing for the KHSAA to divide baseball into classes so that smaller schools have a better chance to win a title. But Logan thinks this year's tournament is up for grabs no matter the size of the school.
"I think it's wide open for anybody, no matter what class you are," he said. "I think everybody's got a chance to win it."
There are three former champs in the field: Bowling Green (1965), Elizabethtown (1970, '75) and Madison Central (1982.