LEXINGTON – It may not feel like it right now, but McCracken County made First Region history just stepping onto the field at Whitaker Bank Ballpark on Sunday.
With a 4-2 loss to Lexington Tates Creek in the KHSAA state championship game, the state runner-up Mustangs were the eighth team from the First Region since 1940 – and the first since the 1979 Murray Tigers – to play in a title game.
Only one of those eight teams won a state title. That team? The 1960 Paducah Tilghman Blue Tornado, who celebrate the 60th anniversary of that feat next summer.
And, like Saturday’s semifinal walk-off win over state powerhouse Louisville Trinity, the Mustangs created some late-inning theatrics against Tates Creek, putting the tying runs on base with one out in the top of the seventh inning.
But, a game- and season-ending 4-6-3 double play erased any chance at a comeback.
“I don’t think we care,” said McCracken senior right-handed pitcher Jacob Ehling, who went 4 1/3 innings, giving up four runs on six hits, while striking out three and walking two in his final start as a Mustang. “We just wanted to come in and win, and we didn’t do that. We had one heck of a season, but we didn’t meet our goal. So, we’re disappointed.”
McCracken opened the scoring immediately.
Two batters after leadoff hitter Ben Higdon singled on the third pitch of the afternoon, Grant Davis – whose sacrifice fly propelled McCracken to the season’s final game – singled, putting two on with one out for the Mustangs.
Logan Verble then ripped a stand-up double to the gap in left-center field, scoring Higdon. Brandon Dodd followed that up with a RBI fielder’s choice, making it 2-0.
Tates Creek came back with a pair of two-run innings, tying the game in the bottom of the second and taking the lead in the fifth.
“We watched McCracken County a couple times in this tournament and they are awesome about jumping out early on teams,” said Tates Creek coach Larry Poynter, whose Commodores won their first state title since 1986. “We knew that we would just have to weather their storm. We knew they were gonna make a run at us. They’re a great team coached by great coaches. For us, it was just to calm down and answer back. It took us an extra inning to do that but never in my thought process would we take Eli (starter Eli Tencza) out.”
Davis said losing Ehling, Verble, shortstop C.J. Spillane, right-handers Dylan Schneider and Garrett Crabtree, outfielders Kiael Waldon, Michael Byrd and Ty Swinford, and pitcher Carson Tabor – while mostly hard-to-replace – is not the end of the run for the Mustangs, who return 15 players next season. Six of those are starters.
“People said that about us last year,” Davis said. “Look at where we are.”
Sunday’s state championship game was also the last for McCracken coach Geno Miller, who on July 1 will take over as the school’s athletic director.
“You can always, when you come up on the short end (of a game), go back and try to find something different (to do),” Miller said. “But, you know, at the end of the day, I can’t say how proud I am of this group of kids. We didn’t come here to play for second base. It hurts. But, at the end of the day, what a ride they’ve been on.”