From Day One on March 2, the primary focus of McPherson High’s baseball team has been to be playing this week at Salina’s Dean Evans Stadium.
The Bullpups achieved that goal last Thursday when they survived a pair of regional white-knucklers, knocking off Hays 4-3 in the semifinals and then arch-rival Buhler 5-4 in the championship game.
Thus MHS will be one of the eight teams vying for the Class 4A Division I state title beginning Thursday at a stadium it’s very comfortable with.
“I have said a few times that we preached getting to Dean Evans all year, and I’m very proud of the entire team for buying into that idea and vision and then working their butts off to get there,” first-year MHS coach Heath Gerstner said. “I preach to the guys all the time that the best team never wins in baseball, but rather the team that plays the best and that will definitely be the case this Thursday. I am excited we are taking a large amount of young guys and let them experience Dean Evans and what a great event the state tournament is. I want to be there every year.”
The Bullpups, 15-7 on the season, play the fourth and final game of the day as they take on Ottawa (16-5) at 6:30 p.m. A victory and MHS would play at 1:30 p.m. Friday against the winner of Fort Scott (17-4) and Rose Hill (15-7).
The Elite Eight has a definite AVCTL Division III flavor, as MHS, Rose Hill and Augusta make up nearly 40 percent of the field.
“Definitely a pleasant surprise to see three league schools there including Augusta and Rose Hill,” Gerstner said. “As I look at the bracket, it really looks like a good state tournament with all eight quality, deserving teams. Obviously Topeka Hayden has quite a target on their back with what they were able to do in Centennial League and dominating some really good teams all year long.”
Hayden (21-1) is the clear-cut favorite, but the Wildcats won’t simply be handed the championship. A lot of things can happen at state and upsets quite often mark the first day.
Ottawa certainly should be a handful for the Bullpups.
“They’re a really good baseball program who has played an extremely tough schedule this spring, including close losses to St. James Academy and St. Thomas Aquinas,” Gerstner said. “They have an All-State pitcher in senior Sam Carver, who we expect to see in Game 1. He is a tall lefty who has given them a bunch of good innings.”
Gerstner hasn’t tipped his hand as to his Game 1 starter, though it will be either Caleb Schmidt (4-2, 3.30 ERA, 33 strikeouts) or Micah McCulley (6-2, 3.33 ERA, 30 strikeouts). Whoever starts will try to get the ball to fireman Marcus McDaniel (2-2, 3 of 3 saves).
“We haven't completely decided quite yet, but are very confident with Schmidt and McCulley starting for us,” Gerstner said. “We want to try to get the ball to McDaniel in sixth or seventh with a lead.”
The Bullpups most likely need a low-scoring game to advance. They have relied on pitching, defense and offensive execution, as they’re not a fence-busting teams. In fact, they had only three homers in 749 plate appearances, two of those by leading hitter Cody Starkel (.456). As a team, MHS hits .317, but has only 33 extra-base hits out of 160.
Gerstner doesn’t apologize for the formula, as it’s served the Bullpups well.
“Keys to victory always start with pitching well and most importantly getting ahead of hitters and then playing good defense behind him,” Gerstner said. “We are not working to strike guys out, but hopefully to get hitters to ball in play in three pitches or less. I do not see us stringing hits together, but we will need some situational hitting to find a way to scratch a few runs across.”
Other top MHS hitters are McDaniel (.437), Schmidt (.406), Jacob Loecker (.327) and Casen Hoover (.304). Griffin Myers (.265) is the team leader in RBIs with 21.
• STATE SCHEDULE •
11:00 — Topeka Hayden (21-1) vs. Miege (10-12)
1:30 — Augusta (16-6) vs. Kansas City Piper (14-6)
4:00 — Fort Scott (17-4) vs. Rose Hill (15-7)
6:30 — Ottawa (16-5) vs. McPherson (15-7)
11:00 — Hayden-Miege winner vs. Augusta-Kansas City Piper winner
1:30 — Fort Scott-Rose Hill winner vs. Ottawa-McPherson winner
4:00 — Third-place game
6:30 — Championship game