By Denis House
LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
BARBOURVILLE—At the start of baseball season, North Laurel wasn’t in the conversation as a region contender.
The Jaguars had graduated several key players from the previous year and returned only one senior.
“You would have been crazy to mention us as region contenders at the start of the year,” North Laurel coach Darren McWhorter said. “I had no idea what kind of team we were going to have with all the young players.”
Thursday night, after his team defeated Harlan County, 7-2, to claim the 13th Region title, he knew exactly what kind of team he had.
“In a one game tournament you never know what can happen,” McWhorter said. “South Laurel was favored to repeat, and Harlan County was a senior laden team. Once they knocked out South, you kind of figured they would win it. But we are hot and playing as good as we have all season. We are doing the little things to win games.”
McWhorter knew his team faced a battle with the Black Bears. The two teams split during the regular season. Harlan County won the first game, 5-4, then North took the second, 3-2.
“I knew it was going to be a knockdown, drag out battle,” McWhorter said. “Both times we played them this season it was like that.”
Early on, Zach Hurley and Conner Leisge waged a pitcher’s duel. Hurley took a no-hitter into the fourth inning, while Leisge held the Jaguars scoreless for four innings.
“Their pitcher was being a pitcher,” McWhorter said. “He was giving us fits.”
The Jaguars had chances in the early innings, leaving five runners on base through four innings.
Harlan County would strike first, scoring two runs in the bottom of the fourth, the only inning the Black Bears got a hit off Hurley, who pitched a masterpiece, going seven innings, allowing two runs on one hit while striking out 10, walking one and hitting one.
With one out, Hurley hit James Bond. Scotty Bailey followed with a bunt that Hurley fielded and threw to second, but his throw was wide and both runners were safe.
After striking out Anthony Jenkins, Hurley walked Leisge to load the bases for Zach Doss. Doss worked the count full before singling to left to score Bond and Bailey and give Harlan County a 2-0 lead.
Instead of hanging their heads, the Jaguars responded in the top of the fifth to tie the game at 2-2.
Cole Lewis led off by reaching on an error. Marcus Carson, the lone North Laurel senior, stroked a single to left. After Weston Griebel grounded out, Ethan Maxey, who had been swinging a hot bat all tournament long, continued with a single to center that brought both runners home to tie the game.
“Thank goodness we were able to answer their two runs,” McWhorter said. “Every run was crucial. That’s the mental part of the game. Some teams have a hard time coming back.”
With the score still tied 2-2 after five, McWhorter toyed with the idea of taking Hurley out and bringing Carson in to finish the game. But it was the North pitcher who changed his mind.
“When you have a guy saying please don’t take me out I want to finish it up, I decided to leave him in,” McWhorter said. “Marcus said ‘don’t take it from him.’ So I left him in.”
Hurley made sure his coach made the right decision. He struck out two of the three batters he faced in the sixth, then retired the side in the seventh.
The Jaguars were able to break the game open in the top of the seventh, and it was Carson who got things started as he has all season long with a double to center. That would be all for Leisge, as Bond came in to relieve him.
With Griebel at the plate, baseball strategy dictates that you bunt the runner to second to put him in scoring position. McWhorter decided to have Griebel hit away.
“Weston is a better hitter than he is a bunter,” McWhorter said.
Griebel hit a hard grounder that Doss at second couldn’t handle. Griebel was safe on the error, and Carson scored what turned out to be the winning run.
That run opened the flood gates, as North Laurel scored five in the inning to take the 7-2 win.
With Griebel at first, Harlan County catcher Tyler Boggs tried to pick him off, but his throw sailed into foul territory in right field. Griebel was able to advance to second. Maxey drew a walk, and Dylan Messer came in to run for him. Hurley singled to right, but Griebel was gunned down at home. Messer would score on an error by the shortstop to make it 4-2.
Austin Thompson then executed a perfect squeeze bunt that scored Hurley and chase Bond from the game. Tyler Cornett took over for the Black Bears, but he walked the first batter he faced, Logan Mallory. Ryan Abner came in to run for Mallory. After Austin Rudder lined out to second, Byron Rice doubled to left to score Thompson and Abner for the 7-2 win. Rudder had two hits in the game, as did Rice. Carson went 3-for-4 with two singles, a double and two runs scored.
“I’ve had a good career at North Laurel and winning the region tops it off,” Carson said. “But we’re not done yet. Winning the region is just the first step. We want to make a big splash in the state tournament.”
The win gave North Laurel its first region title since 2007. McWhorter said this season reminds him a lot of the ‘07 year, as both teams started playing their best baseball during the post season.
The Jaguars will now face Prestonsburg at 1:30 p.m. today at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington. Prestonsburg won the 15th Region title with a 3-0 win over Belfry. The only common opponent the two teams have is Hazard. The Blackcats lost to the Bulldogs, 6-5, while North blanked them, 9-0.
Mallory, Hurley, Maxey and Carson were all named to the All-Tournament Team, while Trent Abner and Daniel Neal made it from South Laurel.