Don’t expect Sunday’s second-place finish in the Class AAA American Legion State Baseball Tournament to be the final ride for this Post 24 team.
There’s a chance it could be right back in the championship game next season.
This group of McPherson players now has a state championship and runner-up state finish in the last two summers. Because of its youth, it competed at the Class A level last year, roaring back through the losers bracket to win the championship after losing in the first round to Andover.
Post 24 appeared to be on its way to a complete reversal of its route to another championship this weekend. It stayed in the winners bracket, defeating Emporia, Great Bend and Ottawa in three tense games.
That earned it a rest as the remainder of the teams fought it out in the losers bracket, expending a lot of physical and emotional energy. In addition, whichever team emerged to play McPherson figured to be running on fumes in terms of pitching.
Ottawa was the team to survive the gauntlet, overcoming a 4-0 deficit to Wichita in the final 1 1/2 innings to make the championship game. Earlier, the Arrows had won their first two games by a single run each.
McPherson was hoping to finish off Ottawa on Saturday. It was in position to do so, as the teams were tied 4-4 heading into the sixth, which proved to be the Arrows’ magical inning throughout the tournament.
They took advantage of walks to score four runs, then took all the suspense out of the game with five in the seventh for the 13-5 victory.
In Sunday’s winner-take-all game, Ottawa coach Brian Long was left with Alex Stepp, who hadn’t pitched in about a month. But he had experience in this situation, as he was the Arrows’ pitcher in last year’s Class AA state title game against Fort Scott.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting a lot of runs to be scored. McPherson sent out arguably its best pitcher the second half of the summer, Jack Reifschneider, but I had serious doubts just how much he had left as he already had worked in two games.
As it turned out, both pitchers were terrific. Through five innings, both teams had one run and just three hits apiece.
In the sixth, Post 24 manufactured four runs on just two hits. It was aided by three Ottawa errors, one of them a catcher’s interference that pushed across the tiebreaking run.
However Ottawa finally got to the tiring Reifschneider, who gave up three doubles in the sixth before eventually being lifted after 110 pitches. When the smoke cleared, Ottawa had put up a six-pack of runs for a 7-5 lead, which it preserved in the final inning.
Ottawa was a worthy champion. Time and again it stared adversity in the face and never blinked. Congratulations go to Long and his team.
But Ottawa is an older team. It may have to move over next year because this McPherson team is prime and ready to ascend to the throne.
The key is going to be pitching. Coach Tony Schmidt said it probably was one quality pitcher short this summer. He used five in the tournament and a common theme was walks, as Post 24 gave up 24 in the five games, nearly six a game — or practically one an inning.
Post 24 got a lot out of its upper third of the order this week. Cody Starkel (8 for 18, 3 homers, 10 RBIs, not to mention great defense) was clearly in my mind the best player in the tournament. Caleb Schmidt (7 of 14) and Marcus McDaniel (8 for 21) gave Post 24 a top three that was unmatched. They were a combined 23 of 52 (.442).
Griffin Myers finished 7 of 14, including 5 of his last 8.
The remaining Post 24 batters were hit and miss. They were a combined 17 of 75 (.227), though at times they came through in the clutch. However after Starkel, Schmidt and McDaniel, the other six hitters combined to drive in only nine runs in five games. In the first two games against Ottawa, Post 24 left a whopping 25 runners on base.
The other phase of the game, defense, was stellar for McPherson. It made the difficult plays look easy and the easy plays somewhat difficult. Jacob Loecker had a season’s worth of highlights in the five games, including the Great Bend game where he personally saved five runs with two amazing plays. The infield also turned several doubleplays during the week, including three in one game.
This group has achieved remarkable success recently. In addition to last year’s Class A state championship, it made it to the finals of the Class 4A Division I State Tournament, losing to Topeka Hayden in the title game. Now add in Sunday’s second-place finish and the team has a chance for something special next year as it could be the preseason No. 1 in 4A Division I (Hayden graduated much of its team) as well as a favorite in Class AAA next summer since it will be much of the same cast of characters. And don’t forget, McPherson took third in the Class A State Tournament last month.
Baseball is alive and well in McPherson.