Heath Gerstner and his McPherson High baseball team looked on as Topeka Hayden dogpiled in the middle of the diamond after its 11-0 victory in the Class 4A Division I state championship game Monday at Salina’s Dean Evans Stadium.
That’s what Gerstner hopes his team will be doing next year and possibly in the years to come.
While Hayden was expected to be in this position at the start of the year — the Wildcats basically went wire-to-wire as the top-ranked team — the Bullpups emerged out of nowhere.
MHS was coming off a 7-14 season, had only two seniors and a new coach. Perhaps a harbinger of things to come occurred over the summer, though, when the core of the 2015 team won the Class A American Legion state championship in stunning fashion, losing its first game only to rip its way back through the loser’s bracket — the first time that had happened in the history of the event.
Gerstner arrived in McPherson early in the summer and evaluated that team, so he didn’t come in stone cold. He knew it had to play to its strengths, which were pitching, defense and ability to execute situational hitting.
The result was an exciting brand of baseball and one that was fun for the players. MHS seldom scared the warning track with long fly balls, but pinged an array of singles, doubles and triples from foul line to foul line. Its pitching was headlined by Micah McCulley and Caleb Schmidt, with Marcus McDaniel donning his fireman gear in the late innings.
The Bullpups reversed their 7-13 regular-season record of last year by finishing 13-7, then survived a pair of one-run decisions to win the regional title, taking out arch-rival Buhler in the championship game. The Crusaders had been ranked among the Top 5 teams most of the year and held the early lead in the championship game, but the Bullpups were able to come back, which was a trademark of the team.
MHS played easily its best game of the year in the state opener against Ottawa as the “Bullpup Blueprint” was on full display. McCulley threw a gem, the infield vacuumed any and all ground balls and the outfielders covered the expansive area with nary a miss. The offense applied the pressure on the Cyclones, who got jittery in a three-run fourth inning that turned the game around.
The semifinal game with Rose Hill was epic. The Bullpups appeared to be in control, up 3-1 through three innings in the third meeting of the year between the teams with MHS always holding the upper hand.
The Rockets, however, seized the opportunity in the fourth inning when the MHS defense sprang a rare leak. The result was a six-run inning and a 7-3 lead, as the blustery Bullpup wind in the sails had been reduced to a zephyr.
MHS picked itself right back up. A three-run fourth pulled it within one, before a balk tied the game in the sixth.
McDaniel kept the game right there with his dazzling array of curveballs and MHS finally won it in typical style — a stolen base by pinch-runner Kolby Reed was cashed in by Caleb Schmidt’s single, with Reed making a great slide to end the game.
Unfortunately for MHS, no third-place game was played due to a variety of reasons, according to KSHSAA’s Fran Martin, one being there was a shortage of umpires around the state since the game was being played on Monday. So it was immediately on to the championship game.
That worked to the detriment of the Bullpups, who had only 20 minutes to come off their emotional high, catch their breath and then go back out to face arguably the best team in Kansas regardless of class.
I don’t think it surprised many that the gassed ‘Pups offered little resistance as the pitching depth had been depleted by the Rose Hill game. I’m not sure a rested Bullpup team would have stayed in the game, but I believe the mental and physical fatigue played a big role in the game turning into a run-rule rout. MHS handed the Wildcats four early runs due to fielding mistakes and the Bullpups’ offense wasn’t going to do much against a Hayden staff that had stifled opponents all season.
Now Gerstner and the Bullpups turn their attentions to next year. The pitching staff will return intact with the three-headed monster of McCulley, Schmidt and McDaniel leading the way. I look for Jack Reifschneider to get more opportunities, along with Jacob Loecker. Hopefully they’ll hone their craft this summer for the Legion team since their innings were limited. For the Bullpups to win it all next year, they need more than the Big 3 as the Hayden game proved that.
Seven starters return, but replacing probable All-State catcher Cody Starkel will be difficult. He was such a commanding presence on the field and his .450 average was among the best single seasons ever by a Bullpup. Second baseman Griffin Myers also departs and led the team in RBIs as he seemed to get big hits in the clutch.
The Bullpups again won’t be a big-hitting team and now that they’ve had a year learning the Gerstner system, they’ll probably be more consistent in the “little things,” like bunting and hitting to the opposite field to move a runner over.
McPherson baseball played under stormy clouds last season, but it’s all sunny skies for next year.