Editor's Note: This is the eighth in a series of articles highlighting the Top 10 sports stories of 2017 as voted upon by The Telegram Staff.
The No. 3 story profiles the Holcomb boys baseball team which captured its first-ever state title in the sport in late May in Emporia.
EMPORIA — Holcomb baseball coach Todd VanCleave rolled the dice, and took a chance. It paid off in spades for the Longhorns at the Class 4A-II state tournament Friday at Soden’s Grove Field.
After his son, senior Conner, had mowed down Nickerson in a 2-1, 15-strikeout semifinal performance, the elder VanCleave turned the mound duty over to Chance Rodriguez, and the junior delivered by keeping the Longhorns in a 1-1 nail-biter through 7 2/3 innings.
But it was the Longhorns’ third pitcher of the day, Kaden Tichenor, and ninth-spot hitter Brayden Goddard, who delivered the game-winning sacrfice fly in the bottom of the 10th with one out that became a 3-2 victory over defending state champion Baxter Springs to bring home Holcomb’s first-ever baseball state championship.
“Just unbelievable, amazing, what can I say,” said a beaming Rodriguez in the minutes of the aftermath, when he slid home with the winning run to give the Longhorns a stunning walk-off triumph. “I was able to just feel really confident once I settled in. But it was the team that came up big, and that’s the way we’ve played all year.”
To make the win mystifying was the fact that through 5 1/3 innings, Mustang left-hander Landon Abbott had a no-hitter going against the ’Horns.
But he reached his 105-pitch count total and had to yield to Nate Thompson, who also somehow bedazzled the Holcomb batters, until they finally cracked through that glass ceiling.
Before that, though, it was ebbs and flows, roller-coaster plays, missed scoring opportunities and double plays to end innings — this one had it all.
The Longhorns somehow put the frustration of four consecutive innings — from the sixth through the ninth, when they stranded eight runners on base — to the side and focused on the ultimate prize.
But they had to bide their time as Baxter Springs showed its mettle in the top of the 10th, getting the go-ahead RBI single from senior Kaid Karnes, who had pitched a gem of a game in the semis in the Lions’ dramatic 5-3 victory over previously unbeaten and top-seeded Rock Creek to start the marathon day.
When Rodriguez reached his final pitch count with two outs in the eighth inning, the younger VanCleave came in in relief and got his 16th strikeout of the day.
When Rodriguez left, he had recorded no strikeouts, walked three, hit a batter, but only gave up six hits, one a double in the first inning when the Lions took an early 1-0 lead.
VanCleave returned to get the Lions in order in the ninth, and then was able to strike out his final batter, Drake Shaw, to start the 10th, finally reaching his pitch limit, as well, for the day, after the earlier complete game.
That brought in Tichenor, who walked his first batter, then gave up a fielder’s choice, before Karnes delivered what the Lions hoped would be the game-winner.
When coach VanCleave opted to give an intentional walk to Noah Wilson to load the bases, with two outs, Tichenor buckled down and struck out Vance Asquith on a swinging whiff.
And it was Tichenor who was able to pick up the all-important win despite pitching to just six batters.
“This is greater than any Major League game I’ve been to,” he said in reference to his father, Todd, a MLB umpire who was in Philadelphia working the Phillies game and unable to attend. “We just fought to the end, and they helped us out some. We just kept going and going. With this group, there’s no quit.”
The game went to extra innings in part due to the grit of the Longhorns, who scratched out a run in the fourth without a hit, when the Lions committed their second error of the game. VanCleave was hit by a pitch, stole second, and then scored all the way on a misplay by Baxter’s right-fielder.
It stood up at the 1-1 knot until the top of the 10th.
Baxter, too, had its share of opportunities. The biggest perhaps came in the ninth, when they had a runner on first and one out. A flyout to short right field resulted in the runner at first getting doubled up when Goddard fired a strike to first base for the double play.
Another golden opportunity to put the game away also eluded the Lions in the seventh, when they had runners on first and second with two outs. A hard grounder to the left of second baseman Brandon Stegman was knocked down, and his off-balance throw to VanCleave at first was too late, but VanCleave then turned and threw a rocket strike to Jameson Martin at the plate, who tagged out courtesy runner Korbin Frisbie to end the inning.
For coach VanCleave, the win capped a six-year span of building the program from nearly scratch.
“This is the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said the Longhorn coach. “It’s surreal. When he (Conner) was nine years old, he told me he wanted to win a state baseball championship. Now, he has.”
And while much focus is put on his KU-bound son, the coach was quick to take his hat off to the rest of the team.
“When we decided not to pitch to Conner, the rest of the team decided to take it upon themselves to win it,” coach VanCleave said. “And that’s what they did. This was a total team and family atmosphere. There was no quit in these kids, and I could not be more proud of a group of young men. It was really an amazing game.”
The victory enabled the Longhorns to complete their season with a 19-2 record while Baxter Springs ended its campaign at 18-5.