The 2014 baseball season was one of tumult for McPherson High.
A new coach of whom big things were expected lasted only two games, resigning when it became apparent that old school and new school didn’t mix. The result was a lost 7-14 season with a young group of players who had anticipated far better.
Over the summer, mostly this same group of players banded together as brothers. After an uneventful regular season, the team caught fire in the postseason. It boarded a magic carpet for a ride that ended with an American Legion Class A state championship, the first Legion title in 40 years.
What made it so fulfilling was that the team lost in the first round and had to come all the way back through the loser’s bracket, something that had never been accomplished in the 33 years of the tournament.
Armed with that experience but still a team with only two seniors, McPherson High entered the 2015 season under first-year coach Heath Gerstner with perhaps unfair expectations. Class A at the American Legion level is not quite the same caliber of competition you find at the high school level. There were a few long faces after the season opener when MHS came up empty in two games against Augusta.
But the patient Gerstner promised better days and the Bullpups delivered. Playing an exciting brand of baseball, they won 13 of their last 18 games for a 13-7 record, good enough for the top seed at next week’s regional tournament at Hays.
Gerstner certainly has changed the culture with his never-ending and upbeat optimism, along with assistant coach Aaron Alvord, a former Canton-Galva star and professional player in the Detroit Tigers organization.
Gerstner arrived in McPherson last summer to evaluate his team during the Legion season. It didn’t take him long to realize what it lacked in power, it could make up for with speed, execution and pitching.
The Bullpups hit only three homers all year — two by probable All-Stater Cody Starkel — but put the ball in play, striking out less than five times a game. The team also showed patience, walking more than four times a game.
“Small ball” is a term thrown around quite a bit when discussing the Bullpups. Gerstner likes to keep the pressure on opposing teams with bunting and stealing. If you play for Gerstner, you had better have bat control.
The Bullpups hit .313 as a team, a big improvement over last year. And they were able to do damage up and down the lineup as there aren’t many easy outs.
Alvord, meanwhile, was important to the MHS pitching staff. Micah McCulley was its biggest winner at 5-2, Caleb Schmidt probably its steadiest pitcher (3-2 record, 3.19) and Marcus McDaniel its specialist out of the bullpen (a team-high 12 appearances). Because of the way the schedule fell, Jack Reifschneider and Jacob Loecker were the only other pitchers who threw very many innings.
For the most part, the Bullpups made the routine plays defensively, though there were times when they had to get what amounted to five outs an inning. One-third of the runs the team gave up this year were unearned, a better percentage than in recent years.
If the Bullpups can get out of their regional, they should line up well for the state tournament, where you need three starters. Gerstner can mix and match, so he should be in good shape there.
Provided McPherson can get past Hays, which will be energized by playing at home, Buhler is the probable obstacle in the finals. The Crusaders can really hit the ball and have been ranked higher than MHS most of the year. However, the teams split their two meetings this year, so it will come down to which team makes the few mistakes that will earn a trip to Dean Evans Stadium in Salina.