Heath Gerstner knows his McPherson High baseball team is one of the best eight in the state.
But it won't get a chance to prove it next week.
The Bullpups, the No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A Division I, saw their hopes dashed for a repeat trip to Salina as too many walks and errors enabled arch-rival Buhler to come away with an emotional 11-9 regional championship game victory Wednesday at Grant Complex.
MHS, which had advanced to the finals with a 13-3 rout of Ulysses, finished with a 16-6 record after placing second in the state last year.
It was a roller-coaster of emotions for both teams as MHS overcame a 4-0 deficit with five runs in the fourth inning to take the lead. Just as in the last game between the two, it was a Bullpup sixth-inning collapse that did them in, giving up seven runs after two outs had been recorded. Buhler's rally was aided by four walks and some leaky MHS defense.
The Bullpups did score four runs in the bottom of the sixth to get their fans back into it at 11-9, but Hunter Miller slammed the door with a 1-2-3 seventh inning to send the Crusaders to state for the first time.
"I never felt like we played our brand of baseball tonight," Gerstner said. "But I was impressed with our ability to never give up. I'm super proud of this team."
A key play in the game occurred in the sixth inning. With two on and two out and the Bullpups leading 5-4, Marcus McDaniel threw a 2-2 curveball to Ethan White that the Bullpups and their loyalists thought was strike three and would have ended the inning. However, it was ruled to just miss and White wound up walking. Tristan Hawkinson then walked to force in a run and All-Stater Jace Williams delivered a two-run single to put Buhler ahead for good, 7-5. A couple of MHS misplays allowed four tack-on runs, which proved to be huge.
MHS' rally in the bottom of the inning was error-aided as the Crusaders, who had been so good in the field through five innings and airtight in their 6-0 first-game victory over Hays, kicked it around three times to lead to the four runs.
"I told our guys the reason we've been ranked No. 1 (in the state), which I haven't understood all year, is the respect for our senior class," Gerstner said. "They respect how much they fight and how much they play for each other. That felt like a state championship game, not a regional final. I think Buhler is going to have a great shot of going up to Salina and winning it. They have great pitching."
Buhler won the game despite only five hits, but MHS starter Micah McCulley and McDaniel combined for eight walks and MHS also committed four errors.
Dylan Werries had two hits to lead MHS, while Casen Hoover had a booming two-run double. Williams drove in three for Buhler in his final athletic competition against the Bullpups as he's been a star since he was a freshman.
• MHS 13, Ulysses 3 — Early on it appeared it might be a high-stress opener for the Bullpups.
A third-inning home run by Kaler Gilbert pulled the Tigers within 4-3 and they were playing the Bullpups far closer than had been hoped.
But Jack Reifschneider was nails the rest of the way and the MHS bats came alive as the Bullpups scored the game’s final nine runs.
McCulley wielded a big stick for MHS, hitting a two-run triple in the first inning and ended the team’s season-long home run drought in the fourth inning with a bomb that curled inside the left-field foul pole. He was 3 for 3 with three runs scored and four RBIs.
Reifschneider wound up allowing four hits and fanning 10 in a game that was shortened to 5 1/3 innings due to the run rule. Jeff Reed’s fielder’s choice scored Kolby Reed with the game-ending run.
Also coming up big for MHS were McDaniel (2 for 2, three runs scored) and Jacob Loecker (2 for 3, two RBIs) and Kolby Reed (two hits).
• Vs. Ulysses •
MHS (13) — McDaniel 2-3-2-1, Werries 2-1-1-0, McCulley 3-3-3-4, Loecker 3-0-2-2, Hoover 4-1-0-0, Kalkhorst 3-0-1-1, Sitts 0-2-0-0, K. Reed 4-0-2-1, Saverino 4-1-1-1, J. Reed 3-0-0-1.
• Vs. Buhler •
MHS (9) — McDaniel 4-1-1-0, Werries 4-2-2-1, McCulley 4-0-1-1, Sitts 0-1-0-0, Loecker 4-1-1-1, Hoover 4-1-1-2, Kalkhorst 3-1-0-0, K. Reed 1-1-0-1, Saverino 4-0-0-0, J. Reed 3-1-1-0, Reifschneider 0-0-0-0.