Whitley County’s Colonels know what it means to be a mountain team in a Kentucky high school state tournament.
“We are southeastern Kentucky,” Whitley County baseball coach Jeremy Shope said. “We’re here not only for us, but we’re here for our community, we’re here for our school and we’re here for 606. It’s special.”
That “606” means the telephone area code of the entire Kentucky mountain region. But the only numbers that really mattered Friday night at Kentucky Proud Park were Whitley County 2, Henderson County 1.
Both of Whitley County’s runs came courtesy of senior right fielder Sam Harp, who crushed a two-out triple over the head of Henderson’s center fielder to score Bryce Anderson in the top of the third inning for a 1-0 lead and blooped an RBI single to short right-center in the sixth inning to make sure Whitley didn’t waste Grant Zehr’s leadoff triple.
“This is one of those moments you dream of as a kid,” Harp said. “Little school from southeastern Kentucky getting to advance to the state championship. I just love my team and love our chances. I’d do anything for these guys.”
While Harp’s second run-scoring hit looked like a bit of a fluke, his play is not. Harp leads the team with a .417 average and 50 RBI.
“Sam Harp’s our guy. He’s our dude. Everybody knows that,” Shope said. “Sam Harp is always big in big moments.”
Henderson County (20-18) responded with its lone run in the bottom of the sixth inning by capitalizing on a walk to Dru Meadows. Meadows took second base on a wild pitch that prompted Whitley to put in Bradyn Bargo in relief of starter Mason Croley. After the pitching change, Meadows stole third and later scored on a sacrifice fly to center by Cooper Vowels.
— Jared Peck (@HLpreps) June 9, 2023
RUN IN. Whitley Co. @WCcolonelsBase 2, Henderson Co. 0 T6. @SamHarp1313 finds a hole in short center and cashes in the leadoff triple by @zehr_grant. @KHSAA State Tournament Semifinals pic.twitter.com/iWFPtYgRzD
— Jared Peck (@HLpreps) June 9, 2023
FINAL. Whitley Co. @WCcolonelsBase 2, Henderson Co. 1. Whitley headed to the ‘ship for the first time in school history. Set to face Shelby Co. at 7 pm Saturday. @KHSAA State Tournament pic.twitter.com/REdjy1fZNm
— Jared Peck (@HLpreps) June 10, 2023
Croley was charged with the run but got the win, allowing only one hit in 5⅓ innings with eight strikeouts and two walks. Meadows pitched a complete game for Henderson in the loss, allowing the two runs on six hits with a walk and four strikeouts.
When Bargo gave up a one-out single to Henderson’s Dax Wilson in the bottom of the seventh inning, Shope helped make sure of the win by bringing in Zehr to close out the game.
On the mound, Whitley’s Zehr, Bargo and Croley account for 32 of the team’s 38 wins and contribute greatly to its 2.18 earned run average, which ranks among the state’s best.
“Bargo did a great job coming in there and getting some outs for us,” Shope said. “But we wanted no regrets. We wanted Grant Zehr to end that thing.”
Zehr got a pair of flyouts to end the game and did it in just seven pitches, which means he’ll be fully available for Saturday’s championship game against Shelby County.
No. 8 Whitley County and No. 17 Shelby County came into the tournament as two of only seven ranked teams left standing in the postseason from the final PrepBaseballReport.com’s coaches poll “power 25.”
“It’s really crazy,” Harp said. “There are so many good teams in the state of Kentucky. In a single-elimination tournament anybody can really win it.”
Whitley County (38-4) has made the state tournament in two of the last three years, but those are its only two appearances and this is its first finals. Whitley is the first 13th Region team to make the finals since Corbin finished runner-up in 1994. It’s looking to be the first mountain team state champion since Boyd County in 2001.
“It’s just been a special year. Who wins 38 ball games?” Shop said. “We do, I guess. But this team has just grinded out wins all year long.”
Shelby County wins in a walk-off
As Shelby County built its threat to win the game in the bottom of the seventh inning, designated hitter Jack Wills warmed up in the bullpen in case he was needed as a relief pitcher in extra innings.
He didn’t plan on taking the mound.
“I told my catcher, ‘I’m coming up and walking this off,’” Wills said.
With runners on second and third base with one out, Wills lined the game-winning single to right-center field to give the Rockets a 2-1 win over Apollo in Friday’s first semifinal game of the state high school baseball tournament.
The win sent the Rockets to the program’s fifth state finals and first since 2007. Shelby County won it all in 1979. Now, the Rockets (32-9), who won only seven games two seasons ago, celebrated Friday’s win with its second dogpile of the season.
“It means a lot. Everybody at home, they love it,” Wills said. “It was just like the region when we walked it off. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t breathe, but it was all right.”
Jack Wills delivers the game-winning single as Shelby County tops Apollo 2-1 in the state baseball semifinals. Rockets get Whitley County-Henderson County winner in Saturday’s 7 p.m. state final. Follow @CalebWiegandt for more from today’s game. pic.twitter.com/ThTQBqwm4y
— Jason Frakes (@kyhighs) June 9, 2023
Freddie Stohlman’s two-out single and stolen base in the second inning set up Tony Bailey’s run-scoring hit for an early 1-0 Shelby County lead. Apollo (25-13) answered in the fourth inning after Josh Mayes’ leadoff double put pressure on the Rockets’ defense. Mayes scored the tying run after he enticed a throwing error by the first baseman after a groundout.
Shelby put runners on in every inning, but had chances cut short three times as runners got caught stealing in the third, fourth and fifth innings.
“They’re resilient,” Shelby County Coach Steve Kingsolver said. “We got in there and tried to play our brand of baseball. The steals weren’t working out for us today, but we still had to try. We still had to stay aggressive.”
Stohlman connected on a one-out single to right field to get things started for Shelby in the seventh. Bailey’s sacrifice bunt was fielded cleanly by Apollo pitcher Will Strode, but Strode’s throw overshot the first baseman and allowed Stohlman and Bailey to advance to second and third as Wills stepped to the plate.
“If you told me before this season we’d be right here, I don’t know if I would say that we would be here,” Wills said.
Hunter Cook pitched two innings in relief of Shelby County starter Kemper Whisman to get the win. Whisman allowed just two hits and the run with six strikeouts in five innings.
Kingsolver admitted his team hadn’t thought much about their success along the way.
“We spent so much time preparing that you can’t envision the success. You just know the path,” Kingsolver said. “It’s fun to see them actually experience the other side of success.”
But there’s still one game to go. Kingsolver’s advice to his team about taking on the winner of Friday night’s other semifinal game won’t change from their strategy to this point.
“‘Go win. And be yourselves,’” Kingsolver said. “That’s absolutely what I tell them. Just be yourselves. I’ve had the question several times: ‘How do you bring these guys in? How do you get them focused? How do they do what they do?’
“It’s because it’s who they are. They come to play every day and it’s a lot of fun coaching them.”
At Kentucky Proud Park
7 p.m.: Whitley County (38-4) vs. Shelby County (32-9)