The gloves glittered like gold.
If ESPN had needed some Web Gem highlights, it could have sent a crew to McPherson’s Grant Complex Thursday night and filled its entire broadcast.
It was defense, defense and more defense to the rescue for Post 24, as its fielders probably saved — and this is a conservative estimate — a half-dozen runs to secure a 6-3 second-round state-tournament victory over a very good Great Bend team that probably was kicking itself during the 60-mile trip home for all the opportunities that it let slip through its fingers.
The chief tormentor was Jacob Loecker, who had a tumbling catch in left field early in the game to rob the Chiefs of probably two runs. Then after moving to first base in the sixth inning when starting pitcher Caleb Schmidt was lifted for normal first baseman Marcus McDaniel, he speared a two-out hot shot that was screaming down the right field line that would have cleared the three bases that had been occupied with Chiefs.
Loecker, in a sense, saved at least five runs with his platinum-glove work.
Meanwhile, Casen Hoover made like a vacuum at third base in the fifth inning. With two runners on and one out, Great Bend’s Jared Maneth scalded a ball that Hoover had a split-second to react to. He fielded the ball on one hop and started a 5-4-3 DP that squelched yet another Chiefs rally.
McPherson catcher Cody Starkel was his usual massive presence behind the plate, including a gundown of a would-be base stealer in the fourth inning. Starkel, to most observers who have seen all the games in the tournament, is the best player in the field. In addition to being the team’s quarterback, he’s hit two homers and driven in five runs in two games.
You really had to feel sorry for Great Bend. It had 20 runners reach base in seven innings and was one pitch away from scoring only one run, as its final two runs came with two out in the seventh inning. Schmidt gutted threw his 5 1/3 innings and surprisingly didn’t become dizzy from all the runners that reached against him. McDaniel trembled McPherson fans early in the seventh inning by allowing the first two runners to get on, but eventually struck out the side.
This McPherson team is seeking a second straight state championship. The core group of players — Mikey Saverino is the only regular who wasn’t on the field last year at Leavenworth — showed its grit there by winning six straight games in the losers bracket to win the Class A state championship. Then as McPherson Bullpups this spring, they captured second in the state, which included a numbing, come-from-behind victory over league rival Rose Hill in the semifinals.
McPherson now plays an Ottawa team that is a mirror image of themselves. It is coached by Brian Long, a proud McPherson High graduate who no doubt will be conflicted since he bleeds Bullpup Red and White. I’m sure if his team doesn’t win the state title, he’ll be hoping it’s Post 24.
Ottawa has won a pair of one-run games so far, including Thursday’s second-round game when it pushed across a run in the final inning on a bases-loaded hit batter. It probably believes it has some destiny working.
At this point in a state tournament, it all comes down to pitching. McPherson coach Tony Schmidt probably will go with Loecker as his starter today, but Starkel is an intriguing possibility. He certainly has the arm, but hasn’t pitched much in high-stress situations. Plus, it makes the McPherson defense weaker as he’s such a stalwart and team leader behind the dish.
Ottawa, too, has to send out probably it’s No. 3 pitcher. The winner, of course, has a huge advantage the rest of the way because most teams that win state do it without coming all the way back through the losers bracket.