The KHSAA hasn’t been shy about tinkering with the state baseball format. Over the past seven seasons, the sectionals/semi-state format was transformed into a weeklong Sweet 16, which after a six-year trial begot a new two-weekend format set to make its grand debut next weekend at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
But what about shaking up the regional format?
Tates Creek Coach Larry Poynter — whose team was ranked No. 5 entering the postseason but was knocked out in the first round of the 43rd District Tournament — is an advocate for double-elimination at the regional level and going back to a best-of-three semi-state series prior to the state tournament.
“I just don’t feel like baseball’s intended to be one and done,” said Poynter, who brought up Florida in the college ranks. The Gators, ranked No. 5 in the nation, wouldn’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend if the college postseason worked like Kentucky’s high school postseason does.
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Poynter said the current structure favors the team with the best pitcher, not necessarily the best team. Double-elimination formats alleviate the concern of facing a monster arm, he said.
“I think it’s a lot of pressure to ask a high school kid to play this game that’s already pressure-packed and say, ‘Hey, if you screw up, your season’s over,’” Poynter said. “Whereas, if you make a mistake and lose a game (in a double-elimination format), hey we can get ’em the next time. And if you don’t, then you just weren’t good enough.”
Baseball perhaps is the team sport in which a mistake is toughest to overcome. Great basketball teams can reel off a 10-0 run to retake a lead. Great football teams can create turnovers after giving up touchdowns. Great baseball teams can play their tails off and lose 1-0 because the opposing pitcher was just a hair better than their own.
Steve Roof took a great baseball team into the 11th Region Tournament and knew a tough battle was in store for his Madison Central squad in the first game on Monday. His Indians, ranked fourth in the state, were paired with No. 8 Lexington Catholic. Central came out on the losing end of a 6-5 eight-inning affair.
Central’s season ended Monday afternoon, but the defending region champs had a deep enough team to put together a hypothetical loser’s bracket run. Roof and his kids enjoyed the atmosphere of the 11th Region’s first round; its ramifications played a role in elevating their feelings.
“Other than the outcome, it was a fun day in terms of excitement,” Roof said. “ ... But obviously after you lose, we would like a second chance. But we’ve had it go both ways. There’s probably a game or two last year we won that could’ve went either way. When you have that many good teams, somebody’s gonna come up short.”
The one guarantee is that no format is going to please everyone. Perhaps it should be left up to each region to decide whether a single-elimination or double-elimination format better meets its needs? Under the current rules, there doesn’t appear to be a way for a traditionally powerful region like the 11th to tinker with its format. If district-tournament seeding can be left up to a blind draw rather than performance against district opponents — effectively neutering the regular season — why can’t individual regions be alloted more freedom in how they determine a champion?
Henry Clay Coach Jordan Tarrence is among those who favor a double-elimination region tournament.
“High school baseball in Kentucky is the only level of baseball where the winner is decided by having to win seven straight games,” Tarrence said. “ ... Baseball is the sport where the best team wins the least amount. Basketball, football, the best teams win at a higher percentage than they do in baseball. In one game, anybody’s got a shot.”
▪ Despite its adorable effort, Madison Central’s “Rallysaurus” couldn’t keep the Indians from falling in the first round of the 11th Region Tournament. During a team-bonding trip to Gatti Town on the Saturday night before Memorial Day, Central’s players pooled their game tickets together to win a multi-colored triceratops plush. The team adorned it with a sombrero they collected after playing laser tag on their trip to Florida this season.
“I know it’s a little different and a little corny, but the kids really like it and it’s a lot of fun,” said Roof, whose team began generating rally themes centered around prizes two years ago with a rally monkey. “I think that’s really what high school baseball’s all about. It’s competing and teaching them to be men, but ultimately we’re going to work hard and have fun.”
Changes afoot at Sayre
Erik Johnson is well-traveled.
The 46-year-old grew up in Spring Valley, N.Y., and attended Skidmore College, where he set the school scoring record as a Division III lacrosse player. He worked in Southern California before earning a doctorate from Northwestern Health Sciences University in Minnesota. He was a chiropractor in Utah before coming to Sayre, where he spent the last 12 years. He’s leaving the school to become the athletic director at Savannah Country Day in Georgia.
In his time at Sayre, Johnson has taught in the upper and middle schools, been the program’s lead team doctor and coached lacrosse and soccer. He became the athletic director in 2010.
“I have worn many hats,” he said.
Sayre’s had a strong run in recent years. Its boys’ soccer team nearly won the All “A” state championship last season. The girls’ basketball program went to consecutive All “A” state tournaments in 2014 and 2015. The baseball team won its first 11th Region Tournament game in 18 seasons last year. The girls’ track and field team set two school records during the Class A state championships last weekend.
A few factors have played into Sayre’s spike in success over the years, among them improved youth programs, increased emphasis on year-round training and commitment, and a mindset focused on toughness and resilience. The biggest common denominator?
“I think assembling a first-rate coaching staff would be right at the top of that list,” Johnson said. “ ... It’s not always easy to get coaches to come and coach at a small school when they know they’re not necessarily going to get the athlete pool that they might at a big school. It’s been a great run in that respect.”
Savannah Country Day presents a new challenge but is a school of similar size to Sayre. Johnson looks forward to making an impact elsewhere after doing so in Lexington.
“My goal when I took over as the athletic director was to increase the profile of Sayre athletics, to provide a great experience for student-athletes and to leave this school and this program in much better shape than I’ve found it,” Johnson said. “And I think I’ve done all those things.”
▪ Sayre girls’ basketball coach Scott Sutton, who won nearly 250 games as the school’s baseball coach for 16 seasons before resigning from the position at the end of the 2014 season, is leaving the school to join Scott County’s baseball team as an assistant coach.
Scott County’s baseball field is named in honor of Scott’s father, the late Charlie Sutton, an instrumental figure in Georgetown who was elected into the Scott County Schools Hall of Fame in 2003. Sutton’s son, Sam, is a sophomore starting in the outfield for the Cardinals (he attends Scott County because the school offers football, which Sayre does not). Scott wants to spend more time coaching and watching his son. “Life’s too short,” Scott said.
His son played a crucial role in Scott County history on Wednesday night. Sam came away with 11 strikeouts and the win in the Cardinals’ 6-2 victory over Western Hills for their first 11th Region title.
“I think for a parent, that is the most nerve-wracking thing in sports, is for your son to be pitching,” Scott said with a laugh after the game. “ ... I was so nervous all day. I had people texting me saying, ‘How many times you been to the bathroom?’”
Sutton is the winningest coach in Sayre girls’ basketball history. The Spartans went 225-170 in his 13 seasons and finished above .500 in 12 of those campaigns; the program had only four seasons above .500 prior to his tenure. Sayre had two 20-win seasons under Sutton after never having any before, and put together a school-record 22 wins during the 2007-08 season.
▪ Charles Thomas, who was an assistant to Sayre boys’ coach Rob Goodman for the last three seasons, will take over for Sutton.
▪ Richard M. Little will succeed Johnson effective July 1. For the past four years Little was the director of athletics at Grymes Memorial School in Orange, Va.
Henry Clay’s surprise repeat
Coach Demetrius Gay didn’t think winning the Class 3A boys’ title last weekend was better than claiming the crown last season — after all, last year’s win was the Blue Devils’ first — but he did call it a surprise.
“Given all the guys that I lost (to graduation), then losing Davonte (Robinson) this year, who was our stud sprinter coming into the season, it’s a great feeling,” Gay said.
Robinson missed much of the track season rehabbing a leg injury. He’s signed to play cornerback at the University of Kentucky.
A big chunk of Henry Clay’s success came via Jaron Brooks, an Auburn signee who swept the high, long and triple jumps for the Blue Devils.
“He scored 30 points,” Gay said. “That helps out a lot.”
Wins in the 4-by-100 and 4-by-200 were also pivotal. Freshmen Langston Jackson and Ramond Jackson came up huge in the final legs of both events. Gay knew what kind of contributor Langston could be this season after watching him run in middle school. Ramond was found money.
“Ramond’s just been a surprise,” Gay said. “He’s came out and worked hard. The future’s kind of bright for us.”
▪ East Carter sophomore Montana Fouts was named Kentucky’s Gatorade Softball Player of the Year. Fouts, who committed to the University of Alabama, has thrown 13 no-hitters and nine perfect games for East Carter, which won the 16th Region championship 2-0 over Rowan County on Wednesday to improve to 34-0.
The Raiders open with East Jessamine, which defeated Garrard County 9-0 for its third straight 12th Region title, in the first round of the state softball tournament next week.
▪ From Mike Fields of the KHSAA: Wednesday’s 11th Region baseball finals between Scott County and Western Hills was the first time in 35 years a Lexington team did not play in the championship game. Madison Central defeated Garrard County 1-0 in the 1981 finals.
▪ Mason County pitcher Darren Williams signed with Eastern Kentucky University on Tuesday.
▪ Lyon County softball’s season came to an end with a 6-1 loss to Christian County in the 2nd Region finals. The Lyons’ 31-6 record was their best finish in program history.