From two early exits at the KHSAA State Tournament to last year's heartbreaking semifinal loss, McCracken County's baseball team knows all too well just how difficult it is to run the gauntlet at state.
It requires plenty of talent -- which the Mustangs have never been short of -- but it's the intangibles that matter just as much. This year's bunch hopes that its focus on the little things and having the right mentality go a long way toward a possible state championship this weekend.
When McCracken faces Pleasure Ridge Park in Friday's state semifinals, the pain of last year's semifinal defeat will still be felt. The Mustangs took eventual champion St. Xavier to extra innings before falling in a walk-off, 3-2. It's that loss that has fueled the fire for the 2017 season.
"Last year when we were so close and didn't get it done, it's been a chip on their shoulders," Mustang head coach Geno Miller said. "Every team we have taken to Lexington has wanted it, but having that chip on their shoulder might be a little bit different this year than past teams."
While PRP is a traditional state powerhouse, its current team doesn't have the state experience that McCracken does.
The Mustangs are at state for the fourth straight year now and have learned a thing or two about what it takes to be the last team standing.
"The little things are the most important things," Mustang senior Trent Shelby said. "If you don't do the little things right, you won't win championships. Up there at state, the smallest thing is put up on the highest pedestal."
Fellow senior Nathan Bynum echoed those thoughts and said at state and the deeper you progress, there's something at stake for every pitch.
"It's all the little things and staying concentrated on every single pitch. If you mess up on one little thing, it makes you real vulnerable and can show on a big scale at state," he said.
Other McCracken baseball teams have had the distinction of being ranked No. 1 in the state or being looked at as the favorite to win the state title.
But those teams fell short of their ultimate goal -- with this season feeling a little different for a Mustang team as hungry as ever.
"We got that close and tasted it. Now we're coming back for blood. We're on it," Shelby said.
Against PRP in the semifinals, it'll be no easy task. The Panthers have five state championships to their name and their head coach Bill Miller is first in state history with more than 1,100 career wins.
The Panthers are ranked No. 4 in the state and are the third top-five opponent the Mustangs have faced in their three state matchups.
University of Louisville commit Garrett Schmeltz will likely to pitch for the Panthers, giving McCracken yet another hurdle as it looks to advance to the championship game
"At the end of the day, we can give the kids the best scouting report there is, but if we don't go up there and two-strike hit and make plays, it doesn't matter. It's just about what we do," Miller said.
The Mustangs have perhaps the deepest pitching staff in the state, and it will likely be on display this weekend without ace pitcher Luke Seed.
Miller said it "doesn't look good" for Seed to pitch this weekend, following an elbow injury he suffered last weekend.
But with its other ace Caleb Reinhardt set to pitch this weekend, along with a staff rounded out by Mason Vinyard, Rece Carter and Colin McCutchen, Miller will have confidence with whoever is on the mound.
Friday afternoon's game begins 1:30 p.m. Eastern back in Lexington, with the winner to take on the Simon Kenton-Marion County winner in Saturday's championship.
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