Kip Ellington may have taken the cake when it comes to paying homage to the sport he loves.
Both of his sons, Carew and Rook, were christened with baseball-themed names. Carew after former American League MVP Rod Carew and Rook after the word “rookie.”
Carew is a freshman-to-be at McCracken County who runs cross country and plays soccer. Rook, a junior at McCracken County, took more to his namesake; he’s a standout center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Mustangs, who for the second straight season will make an appearance in the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA Baseball State Tournament semifinals.
Rook has committed to the University of Kentucky. After an impressive all-around performance at an offseason showcase — “I ran good, I threw good and I hit well” — colleges were lining up to offer him. Among them was UK, with whom he felt an instant connection. He visited Lexington and committed in August well before the Wildcats’ breakout season under first-year head coach Nick Mingione.
He got an early peek at the squad that captured the state’s attention.
“I had a lot of schools after me but UK and Coach Minge, he really showed me how much of a family they were and how together their team was and I just loved it,” Rook said.
Rook, who also plays basketball for McCracken County, says his best attribute on the field is his speed — “I like to run the bases a lot” — but Mustangs Coach Geno Miller thinks the junior’s competitive spirit is what most sets him apart.
“It doesn’t matter what it is,” Miller said. “If you’re playing ping pong he’s trying to kill you. If you’re playing basketball he’s trying to kill you. He is the ultimate competitor.”
That high level of energy is desirable on the baseball field; not so much in situations that call for less enthusiasm.
“He wants to go, go, go, go, go,” Miller said. “He probably leads the team in getting reprimanded on the bus to sit down on the way to games. He can’t sit down for five minutes. But man, he’s a good kid.”
McCracken County opened in the 2013-14 school year after the consolidation of Heath, Lone Oak and Reidland and has become an athletics juggernaut, particularly in the 1st Region. The baseball team has made every state tournament since its inaugural year but didn’t pick up a win until last season.
Back-to-back appearances in the state final four have not just boosted the Mustangs’ profile, but also earned more respect for the 1st Region, which hasn’t produced a baseball state champion since Paducah Tilghman in 1960.
“The whole region was going up there and losing the first game and coming home,” said Miller, who was the head coach at Lone Oak for six years before it shuttered. “I think that it caused a little bit of an identity that we were somebody that was not very strong when it came to baseball across the state. And I think this has established some credibility back to our school but also our region, that we can come up there and compete with some of the better schools.”
Currently there are no better schools, at least as far as ratings are concerned: McCracken County is ranked No. 1 in MaxPreps’ computer rankings and is the only Kentucky school ranked in USA Today’s Super 25 Expert Rankings. That’ll happen when you knock off No. 1 Trinity and No. 3 Scott County on consecutive days, as the then-No. 2 Mustangs did last weekend.
Five-time champion Pleasure Ridge Park, the “Old Faithful” to McCracken’s on-the-rise powerhouse, is ranked second now and will likely have University of Louisville commit Garrett Schmeltz on the mound when it meets the Mustangs on Friday afternoon. Whoever’s standing when the dust settles in that one will be the favorite heading into the finals against No. 13 Marion County or No. 19 Simon Kenton.
After dropping a nine-inning showdown with eventual champion St. Xavier in last year’s semifinals, knocking off another Louisville stalwart would offer a pleasant dose of redemption.
“Last year we had a good chance of winning but I think this year, by us losing last year, I think this year that just made us that much hungrier,” Rook said.
State baseball tournament
At Whitaker Bank Ballpark
11 a.m.: Simon Kenton (27-15) vs. Marion Co. (29-6)
1:30 p.m.: McCracken Co. (35-5) vs. Pleasure Ridge Park (39-5)
11 a.m.: Semifinal winners meet