CHAMPIONS OF KENTUCKY
Breds beat Boyd for back-to-back state titles
By ED DAVIS
Friday night Harrison County's Thorobreds entered the ranks of baseballs elite, becoming the sixth team in history to win back-to-back state championships. The Breds' 9-4 win over Boyd County's Lions marks the third time in the 1990s that the school has won the championship, seemingly solidifying Harrisons growing reputation as a dynasty in the making.
"I don!t know if I would go so far as to call us a dynasty just yet," an emotional Breds coach Mac Whitaker said after the game. "Who knows what we'll do next year. Right now I just want to savor this win. This one is sweeter than last year's because its tough to repeat. Everybody in the state of Kentucky is shooting at you, so to go back-to-back means a lot. Not many teams have done that."
Harrison County had amassed a 40-1 record on their way to the 1997 title. However, the Breds lost four senior starters including pitching ace Bubba Hignite. Though the Breds were highly regarded as the season opened, pitching and filling three positions gave pundits ammunition to discount a chance for a repeat.
"Success breeds success," said Whitaker. "The kids have had an attitude all year long that they can compete with anybody. That's not cockiness, just a belief in their ability to perform. They're used to winning and they aren't willing to accept anything less."
After sliding past PRP 4-3 in the semi-finals, the Breds (33-6) called on the pitching of Will Renaker (10-1) to get them into the winner's circle. No stranger to pitching in championship games, Renaker got the save during last year's title game, the senior hurler made the most of the opportunity. Despite getting into several jams during the Boyd outing and giving up 11 hits, Renaker pulled off the win with a little help from his friends. Each time the right hander's back was against the wall, the Breds' defense found a way to tame the Lions.
"I was surprised that Coach stuck with me as long as he did," observed Renaker. "I didn't have my best stuff tonight at all. I don't know what he was thinking, but he hung with me and I appreciate that. Even though I wasn't throwing well, I wasn't too worried about it. I knew our defense would back me up."
Whitaker called his decision to stick with Renaker an easy one because he has so much confidence in our defense. Will's one who won't walk people. I wanted the ball put across the plate because I knew I could count on our defense to keep them from scoring a lot of runs."
Walks wound up being the key to the Breds' win --- intentional walks that is. With Breds' runners in scoring position Boyd's coach Jody Hamilton made the decision not once but twice to send hard hitting Renaker to first base to get to Noochie Varner. Varner, the tournament's MVP, repaid the snub with a pair of powerful hits that resulted in the junior collecting three RBI. And as if that wasn't enough, he powered a 350-foot solo homer in his third at bat to make sure he got his point across.
"Anytime they do that it just shows they don't respect you," said Varner whose .480 season average is just slightly below Renaker's .520. "Will is a great hitter and I understand why they did it, but it fired me up anyway."
The Lions (31-7) proved to be their own worst enemy allowing the Breds seven unearned runs in the game. In fact it was a pair of errors in the bottom of the first inning that helped the Breds get on the board. Boyd first baseman Jeremy Rogers flubbed a routine grounder allowing J.B. Schmidt to reach base.
Schmidt stole second with two outs convincing Hamilton to issue a walk to Renaker to set up a force out at any base. The decision became a costly one when Varner ripped an RBI single to right center. On the following play with runners at first and third, the Breds took advantage of starter Jason Keyser's inexperience. Varner took off for second as soon as the sophomore toed the rubber causing a balk that sent another run across the plate.
Richard Dennis' screaming single on the following pitch gave the Breds a 3-0 lead.
"Their experience really showed," said Boyd's Hamilton. "They've been to this level before and we haven't. I think their experience was the difference in the game."
But the Lions weren't down for the count and pieced together a four-run rally in the top of the third to take their only lead of the game. The advantage was short-lived as the Breds pulled back in front with three runs in the bottom half of the inning.
Schmidt led off with a single then advanced to second on Kendall Withers' sacrifice. Hamilton ordered another Renaker free pass to first, then Varner hit a bases clearing triple to right. Dennis sacrificed to send Varner past the plate giving the Breds a 6-4 lead.
The Breds added one more in the fifth on Varner's homer and a pair of runs in the sixth, one on a Wither's RBI double and the second on a Renaker sacrifice fly.
The Lions' last gasp came in the top of: the seventh when with one out they moved runners to first and second. Senior Kiley Vaughn was given the nod to close out the game on the mound because he, has what Whitaker termed "a reliever's mentality."
Vaughn struck out the first batter he faced and got the next to ground out to the infield to secure the victory.
"I kind of liked it when coach called on me to relieve Will," Vaughn said. "I really wanted a chance to pitch. I'm a shortstop now so I don't get to pitch that much any more."
When asked the secret to his team's defense, Whitaker is quick to point out that there was no secret. Good, old-fashioned hard work is the key.
"This was a true team effort," praised Whitaker. "These kids have been together a long time and over the years they've been willing to do whatever it took to win. They've never shied away from hard work. Success breeds success. All of the young kids who were here to watch this game today want to play baseball for the Breds because of that success."