If you had told McPherson Junior American Legion baseball coach Heath Gerstner at the start of the summer that his team would finish third in the state, his response would have been a chuckle because he certainly didn't see it coming.
Gerstner was rolling with a brand-new team, as McPherson’s 2014 Class A state championship team moved up to play at the Class AAA level, leaving a total rebuilding job. Dylan Werries was the only player who saw substantial varsity time this spring for McPherson High as he started at shortstop as a freshman. The rest of the team consisted of Gerstner's JV team from this past spring.
"I told my guys that they drove me crazy," Gerstner said today when reflecting back on the 22-13-1 season. "We beat teams I thought we'd never beat and we'd also lose games we never should have lost. But it was a good year."
Yet, it advanced to Salina after being only a No. 3 seed during the zone tournament. However, it knocked off No. 1 seed Dodge City for the right to advance to Dean Evans Stadium and once there, it won its first two games.
But the tournament demise actually started on Thursday when Post 24 frittered away a 7-2 lead and eventually wound up losing 8-7 to Arkansas City in eight innings. There seemed to be a hangover effect as it couldn’t get anything going this morning in an 8-0 loss to Doniphan County that ended early because of the run rule. Post 24 had beaten that same team 9-2 in the first round.
“We had a lead late (against Ark City) and to kind of melt down, so to speak, it’s tough to come back with the short turnaround,” Gerstner said. “We were battling injuries at multiple places. I wanted our guys to come out and compete and I thought we did that.”
This year’s Post 24 team simply ran out of arms, which was the strength of last year’s championship team. That has carried over to the Senior Legion as coach Tony Schmidt has as many as six pitchers who will be available to throw beginning Wednesday at Grant Complex when Post 24 hosts state.
Gerstner had hoped to use Sam Brossard, who had been solid all year, against Doniphan County, but his creaky back again flared up. Brossard has battled back soreness off and on all summer, Gerstner said, and his presence could have made a difference.
McPherson certainly had no shortage of runners in the elimination game, but an omen of impending doom perhaps occurred in the first inning when it had two runners on and came away empty.
From there, workhorse Post 55 pitcher Wyatt Huss was in control. Huss, whose arm hopefully won’t fall off after this week as he threw well over 200 pitches in the tourney, was backed by some solid defense, especially from center fielder Cuttar Huss, who ran down three straight balls in the final inning.
It’s Gerstner’s hope that McPherson’s Senior Legion can come up with the same magic next week as it had last summer. No matter what happens, though, it’s a tremendous sendoff into next season as McPherson will again be in the Class 4A Division I state championship picture after falling to Topeka Hayden in the title game in May.