HAYS — The pure grit was literally dripping off the McPherson High baseball team.
And because of it, the hard-nosed Bullpups will be returning to the state tournament for the first time since 2008.
The never-day-die Bullpups squeaked out a pair of tense, one-run regional victories on Thursday and will be one of the eight participants in the Class 4A Division I Tournament at Salina’s Dean Evans Stadium, which gets under way on Thursday.
The Bullpups will take a 15-7 record into the event, as first-year coach Heath Gerstner engineered a turnaround of 180-degree proportions. They suffered through a strife-torn 7-14 season in 2014 and have done it with a team that includes only two seniors, Cody Starkel and Griffin Myers.
Defeating arch-rival Buhler 5-4 completed the Bullpups’ regional run after they had snuck past tourney host and longtime state power Hays 4-3 in the semifinals.
“I thought the story of the night was our kids’ toughness and desire to get to Dean Evans,” said Gerstner, who came to MHS from Junction City where he had guided the Bluejays to the Class 6A State Tournament. “We knew adversity would hit and did not want to be surprised by it and really allowed us to work out of some jams that changed the game. Our seniors have been so great for us and we wanted to get a regional title for Cody and Griff.”
MHS had to overcome an early 2-0 deficit against Buhler and once it took the lead, it was left up to starting pitcher Caleb Schmidt and fireman Marcus McDaniel to keep the big-hitting Crusaders at bay.
“Schmidt started on mound, but never really felt comfortable all night.” Gerstner said. “Caleb relies on his ability to throw multiple pitches for strikes and just didn't have the feel. What I am so proud of is his ability to just continue to compete and work his tail off to give us a chance. Marcus McDaniel comes in to give us a six-out save, which is just awesome. I thought he definitely made it interesting, but we feel comfortable at the end of the game with Marcus on the mound.”
Buhler had the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the seventh inning when McDaniel finally doused the flames, resulting in the customary dogpile.
“Super proud of our guys and their desire to get to Dean Evans,” Gerstner said. “We talked about back on March 2 (day one of practice) that our goal was to get to Dean Evans and each and everyone truly bought into that idea and worked their tails off to get there.”
The Bullpups had advanced to the finals with a hard-earned win over Hays, which was able to feed off its home crowd. Micah McCulley got the win and McDaniel again finished it off with four outs, three via the strikeout. “Small ball” was the key as a couple of steals by Schmidt led to the winning run. Casen Hoover and Michael Saverino had two hits apiece.
“I thought we had some opportunities early to really build a lead, but credit to Hays for eliminating our opportunities,” Gerstner said. “My hat is off to Buhler and Hays as they are two well-coached teams that I would consider state-caliber teams. They both gave us everything we could handle.”
The state pairings have not yet been announced.
MHS (4) — Starkel 3-0-1-0, Schmidt 3-1-2-1, McDaniel 1-0-0-1, Hoover 2-0-2-1, Myers 2-0-0-0, McCulley 3-0-0-0, Loecker 2-1-1-0, Reed 0-1-0-0 Saverino -1-2-1, Werries 2-0-0-0.
MHS (5) — Starkel 3-0-1-0, Schmidt 3-1-2-1, McDaniel 3-1-3-0, Hoover 2-0-0-0, Myers 2-0-0-1, McCulley 2-1-1-0, Loecker 2-0-0-1, Saverino 2-0-0-0, Brossard 1-0-0-0, Werries 3-0-1-0, Reed 0-2-0-0.