LEXINGTON -- With expectations as high as ever for the McCracken County baseball team this season, Friday afternoon's miscues couldn't have came at a less opportune time.
In its KHSAA State Tournament semifinal game with Pleasure Ridge Park on Friday in Lexington, McCracken had three errors and three costly base running mistakes that played a major role in the Panthers' 6-3 win over the Mustangs.
It's the second straight year McCracken was ousted from the state semifinals. While last year's game was an extra-inning heartbreaker, McCracken had a steep mountain to climb on Friday due to its miscues during the first half of the game.
"It's unfortunate it had to happen today, but that's just high school baseball," McCracken head coach Geno Miller said. "They're 15, 16, 17-year old kids. They give you their best effort of any group I've ever had. Today, a couple of plays here and there, and it's a 2-1, 3-2 game."
PRP took advantage of a hit batter and an error to plate its first run in the third inning, but the fourth inning proved to be the backbreaker. Taking advantage of a pair of McCracken errors and four of its own hits, the Panthers scored four runs and chased McCracken pitcher Caleb Reinhardt.
Dalton Smith, Noah McDonald and Jalil Akbar had consecutive hits to drive in runs for the Panthers, who led 5-0 after their pivotal frame.
"Anything can happen in a baseball game, especially postseason," McCracken's Trent Shelby said of the uncharacteristic miscues. "One little thing escalates to another and then escalates to another."
A fifth-inning home run from Nick Rucker off new Mustang pitcher Mason Vinyard only padded that lead, but McCracken didn't go down without a fight.
Following three outs on the base paths in the opening three innings, McCracken chipped away at its deficit starting in the fifth inning when Rook Ellington hit a single up the middle to drive in Kiael Walden.
It was again Ellington who put the ball in play in a bases-loaded situation in the seventh inning, with PRP committing a throwing error that allowed two more runs to score and make it a 6-3 game.
Will Sykes represented the potential tying run for the Mustangs, but his hit -- perhaps the hardest hit ball of the game for McCracken -- led to a leaping snag from Akbar to end the game.
"Those are some things that will never leave my mind," McCracken senior Nathan Bynum said. "What if that didn't happen, what if this didn't happenÃ¢ Â¦"
Even down six runs, McCracken stayed in the game until the final out and gave plenty for Miller to be proud of.
"They set the bar so high for our region. To go back-to-back semifinals, it speaks volume in itself," Miller said. "They have nothing to be ashamed of. They are winners. We felt short today, but those kids are winners all the way around."
The season ends at 34-6 for the Mustangs, with the Panthers to face Simon Kenton in today's state championship.
McCracken was at state for its fourth consecutive year, and while its seniors will understand the large scope of that success down the road, Friday's pill was a tough one to swallow.
"There is nothing you can say after a loss like this. We all put in the work everyday and that's our one goal, to win state. When you fell short of that one goal you've had all year, it's tough," Shelby said. "All the hard work we have put in, it breaks every single one of our hearts."
A strong senior class graduates for the Mustangs, but All-Tournament players James Michael Dodd and Luke Seed will return next season along with fellow starters Will Sykes, Rook Ellington, Cameron Langston and Kiael Waldon.
Even for a departing senior in Shelby, he sees plenty of bright spots for the future of the program.
"The outcome doesn't change who we are as a team and I guarantee you those kids will be back here next season," he said.
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