The Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament begins Thursday at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. The first round and quarterfinals will be played this week with the semifinals and championship matchup scheduled for next weekend.
Here are five things to watch for this weekend:
1.) Louisville's to lose?
Pleasure Ridge Park, the defending state champion, meets St. Xavier, the state champ in 2016, in the first round of this year's tournament. The Louisville juggernauts were ranked No. 1 (St. X) and No. 4 (PRP) in the final coaches' poll at the end of the regular season, making this a must-see matchup.
Garrett Schmeltz, a southpaw who has signed with the University of Louisville, should get the start for the Panthers while St. X will roll with either Evan Burnett (7-2, 1.50 ERA) or Andrew Littlefield (7-0, 1.24 ERA).
The teams met once during the regular season with the Tigers taking a 17-5 decision over the Panthers. That meeting occurred about a week after longtime PRP head coach Bill Miller died following a battle with cancer, and on the same night PRP renamed its field in honor of Miller. It also was tied, 5-5, before PRP inserted young relievers in the final two innings.
Either PRP or St. X has won the state championship in four of the last five seasons, and whoever comes out of this clash will be favored throughout the remainder of this one. Competitively, it stinks that they have to meet so early, but no one outside of Louisville is complaining.
2.) East advancement
Three of the four teams that'll play in the opening session hail from eastern Kentucky regions. Greenup County takes on Muhlenberg County — the sore thumb in this grouping — in the first game of the tournament while Corbin gets Hazard in the event's second game.
That's a 3-in-4 shot for an eastern team to reach the semifinals, which hasn't happened in either of the last two tournaments. It also doesn't factor in possibility of Paintsville, paired against Christian County in a first-round matchup set for Friday, moving forward in the bracket.
A gander at Greenup County's schedule — and the 36-5 record it put up against it — makes it the most attractive pick to advance the furthest. The Musketeers defeated several in-state powers over the course of the season — Beechwood, Highlands, Lafayette, Lexington Catholic and Paul Laurence Dunbar, to name a few — and five of the eight seniors on this year's roster were roster sophomores when Greenup lost to St. Xavier in the first round in 2016.
3.) Mustangs' turn?
McCracken County lost to St. Xavier in the 2016 semifinals (a walk-off, 3-2, in nine innings) and to PRP in the 2017 edition (6-3 as the state's top-ranked team). There's an alternate timeline in which McCracken County is your two-time defending state baseball champion, but in this one the Mustangs are still searching for their first.
Senior Luke Seed, McCracken's ace the past few seasons, is recovering from Tommy John Surgery but the staff has stepped up in his absence. Brandon Dodd (7-1, 0.95 ERA), Jacob Ehling (8-1, 1.00 ERA) and Dylan Schneider (8-1, 2.02 ERA) lead the way and Garrett Crabtree (4-2, 1.50 ERA) has been productive, too.
Whoever starts in the opener will see a Campbell County team that's won 19 of its last 22 games. The Camels reached the finals last season.
4.) 'Hometown' teams
Lexington was shut out of the tournament for the fourth straight season — Tates Creek's appearance in 2014 was the city's most recent — but Boyle County and Madison Central both will make the short drive to Whitaker Bank Ballpark this week.
Boyle County's back in the field for the second straight season, its first time making back-to-back appearances. The Rebels, here for the third time overall, lost to first-timer Knox Central in last year's tournament and will look to rebound against 5th Region champion LaRue County, making its third appearance and first since 2003, in Thursday's final first-round game.
Madison Central ended Scott County's reign atop the 11th Region to make it for the first time since 2015. The Indians, one of four 30-win teams in the field, open against Bowling Green, here for the second time in the last three seasons.
PRP-St. X is the only matchup of top-20 teams in the first round but the semifinals could have a couple if Boyle (No. 13), Madison Central (No. 7) and McCracken (No. 3) all advance. Boyle would play the PRP-St. X winner and Madison Central and McCracken would meet one another on Saturday.
5.) Little guys
Paintsville reached state for the first time since 1990, when the Tigers won it all with a 10-4 decision over Tates Creek at UK's Shively Field (later renamed to Cliff Hagan Stadium). After dropping two regular-season meetings with in-county rival Johnson Central, the two-time defending region champ, Paintsville knocked off the Golden Eagles in the 57th District and 15th Region championship games.
Hazard, also a Class A school, has never won it all but has made a habit of making it to Lexington. It's here for the third straight season and the fourth in the last five. The championship was played in Fort Knox the last time Hazard made it that far; the Bulldogs lost to Tates Creek, 11-3, in 1980.
Paintsville is the smallest school in the field with 240 students (129 boys) while Hazard comes in at second with 343 (166) enrolled this school year. The next-smallest? LaRue County, whose total enrollment of 740 (389) dwarfs the combined total of both small mountain schools.