SALINA — McPherson High’s baseball team simply didn’t have anything left to give.
The never-say-die Bullpups were emotionally bankrupt following a dramatic nine-inning, 8-7 victory over league rival Rose Hill in Monday’s Class 4A Division I semifinals at Dean Evans Stadium.
When the Bullpups put the foot to the gas for the finals against fresh-as-a-daisy Topeka Hayden, the needle was on empty. The Wildcats, who had been the No. 1-ranked team from Day One, pounced early and often for an 11-0 victory in a game shortened to 4 1/2 innings by the run rule.
Hayden, which finished 24-1, rested for the better part of 3 hours as the Bullpups and Rose Hill exhausted their pitching staffs. The Wildcats had drilled AVCTL Division III school Augusta 9-2 in the early game Monday and had their deep pitching rotation set up perfectly.
Meanwhile, the Bullpups were forced to bring back Micah McCulley, who had thrown an economic five-hit shutout less than 24 hours earlier, and hoped he could give them three innings.
But it was obvious early he had fired all his bullets the day before and he couldn’t make it out of the second inning as by then Hayden led 6-0.
The Wildcats added five more runs against relievers Jack Reifschneider and Sam Brossard.
Even had the Bullpups been well rested, this was Hayden’s year. The Wildcats were the class of the tournament and still had plenty of quality pitching on the shelf.
MHS first-year coach Heath Gerstner, who engineered one of the great turnarounds in Kansas as the two-senior Bullpups went from 7-14 to the best finish in school history, was swelled with pride.
“Super proud of our guys,” said Gerstner, who has changed the culture of baseball in McPherson in his short time here. “They are a fun group to coach... they bought into our vision from Day One to get here. I just wanted us to play loose and I thought we did that for two games. I thought we ran out of gas a little bit in the championship game... they never once complained (about the short turnaround between games).”
The Bullpups had to make a magnificent rally just to advance to their first title game. They led Rose Hill 3-1 through three innings in the semifinals, but for one of the few times this year they had a couple of defensive breakdowns and the Rockets took advantage for six runs and a 7-3 lead.
Undaunted, MHS scored three times in the bottom of that inning to make it 7-6 and tied the game in the sixth inning on a balk.
Relievers Marcus McDaniel of the Bullpups and Courtland Cotten of the Rockets hooked up from there before Cotten gave way to Brett Bonar in the ninth. It was left to Caleb Schmidt to drive in pinch-runner Kolby Reed with a ringing single to left and Reed made an outstanding slide to beat the throw.
MHS banged out 14 hits in the game, including three by Schmidt and two each by McDaniel, McCulley, Cody Starkel, Griffin Myers and Dylan Werries.
Schmidt worked into the fourth inning before Jacob Loecker came on. McDaniel eventually finished the inning, then unfurled zeroes over his final five frames.
Hayden rapped out 10 hits in the title game while Jacob Head and Brooks Peavler combined to limit MHS to four singles by four different players.
“The story of the day is that they were better than us,” Gerstner said. “They hit the crap out of the ball. They had some really good at-bats. We had some good at-bats, but it seemed like we hit it at people.”
Gerstner admitted the Bullpups didn’t have the pitching depth of the Wildcats.
“In a perfect world I was thinking we could go Micah three (innings), and then get Loecker an inning or two and Jack an inning or two,” Gerstner said. “Then we’d go back to Marcus to get a close... lot of things could happen. I had guys I trust on the mound.”
The Bullpups, who shared the AVCTL Division III title with Buhler and Rose Hill and were 17-8 overall, now look to next year armed with confidence as they lose only two seniors, but they’re huge — Starkel and Griffin Myers, longtime backbones of the program.
However, all the pitchers are back and the offense should be better as the players will be one year older and stronger. Hayden, on the other hand, had an embarrassment of seniors — 11 — though it has a program that can sustain graduation losses as year after year it’s among the best in the class.
Vs. Rose Hill
MHS (8) — Starkel 3-0-2-1, Reed 0-2-0-0, Schmidt 6-2-3-1, McDaniel 5-0-2-0, Hoover 4-0-0-0, McCulley 5-2-2-1, Myers 5-0-2-1, Loecker 3-1-1-1, Saverino 4-1-0-0, Werries 5-0-2-1, Reifschneider 0-0-0-0.
MHS (0) — Starkel 3-0-1-0, Sitts 0-0-0-0, Schmidt 3-0-0-0, Brossard 0-0-0-0, McDaniel 3-0-1-0, Hoover 1-0-0-0, Reed 1-0-0-0, McCulley 2-0-0-0, Myers 1-0-0-0, Loecker 2-0-0-0, Saverino 2-0-1-0, Werries 2-0-1-0, Reifschneider 0-0-0-0.