It has been 33 years, but a new state baseball trophy will soon make the drive up Centre Parkway.
Tates Creek defeated McCracken County 4-2 in the championship game of the Whitaker Bank/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament Sunday afternoon at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The Commodores won their fourth championship overall and their first since 1986.
They became the first team from Lexington to win a state title since Lexington Catholic did so in 2009, and the first public school from the city to do it since Paul Laurence Dunbar in 2007. Tates Creek is the latest team out of the 11th Region to win a state title since Woodford County won in 2012.
Tates Creek Coach Larry Poynter, only the school’s third head coach since it opened in the 1965-66 school year, took a vow of silence and had not spoken with media since the Commodores’ 11th Region title win. He was ready to talk Sunday, but his silence continued involuntarily for a little while longer as he attempted to gather his emotions.
“You work so hard as a coaching staff and as a team,” Poynter said. “To achieve this, it’s overwhelming. It really is.”
Last season was the fourth year in a row that Tates Creek, coming off back-to-back trips to the state tournament in 2013 and 2014, was eliminated in the first round of the 43rd District tournament.
This year they won the regular-season district title and finished the year with a 9-0 postseason sweep. From one-and-done to the last ones standing.
“It just took us a little longer to mature,” Poynter said. “We knew we had something special when this group came in as sophomores, and they just kept working and kept working. We never gave up on ’em, and everything clicked this year. … Obviously, they matured at the right time.”
McCracken County pounced out of the gate, leading off with a Ben Higdon single. Tates Creek starter Eli Tencza came back with a strikeout before giving up another single to Grant Davis, and then a double to Logan Verble that scored Higdon. A ground out allowed Davis to score to put the Mustangs up 2-0 before another grounder finished the opening attack.
“We watched McCracken County a couple times in this tournament and they are awesome about jumping out early on teams,” Poynter said. “We knew that we would just have to weather their storm, we knew they were gonna make a run at us.”
The Commodores were retired in order their first time up before evening things on the second go-around. Tencza helped his cause with a lead-off single before a Chandler Workman double sped down the third-base line to score Trenton Taylor (Tencza’s courtesy runner). A two-out double from Mason Gentry scored Workman to tie the game.
“They’re a great team coached by great coaches,” Poynter said. “For us, it was just to calm down and answer back. It took us an extra inning to do that.”
Tates Creek got out of a bases-loaded jam in the top of the third and might have loaded them itself in the bottom if not for a couple of base-path miscues. Both teams were retired in order in the fourth before the Mustangs left one aboard in the fifth.
That’s where Tates Creek took control: The inning started with a fly out before Bradley Fetherston singled. Taylor pinch ran for him, and quickly scored the go-ahead run on a Noah Blythe double off the wall in left-center. A wild pitch moved Blythe to third before Colin Burgess singled to score him.
McCracken County led off the sixth with back-to-back singles but left runners stranded at second and third. It earned a one-out walk in the final frame before Tates Creek turned a 6-4-3 double play to ignite a dog pile on the mound.
“I knew that they were a good hitting team, so if I could just keep them at bay throughout the game I knew that our offense would come along throughout it,” Tencza said. “I just pounded the zone and …”
Tencza hesitated briefly before finishing with a grin, “We won.”
McCracken ace Jacob Ehling went 4 1/3 innings before Ben Higdon, who started in right field, went the rest of the way. Ehling was responsible for all four runs.
Konner Lewis, Tates Creek’s No. 1 pitcher, was available after three days of rest and warmed up but was never tapped. Poynter said there was never a consideration to bring him in for Tencza, who threw a complete game with seven hits, four walks and four strikeouts en route to tournament MVP honors.
“Eli’s done what he’s done for us all year,” Poynter said. “Step up in big moments, and (there’s) nothing bigger than what he did tonight for us.”
Four of Tates Creek’s seniors — Blythe, Burgess, Dylan Crook and Blayne Deaton — were part of a 10-year-old team that won the Cal Ripken World Series in 2011. It took a while for them to get back in the winner’s circle, but the wait was worth it.
“We’ve known each other since we were about 5 or 6,” Burgess said. “It’s amazing.”