Ark City gets to state for first time since 2006
Andrew Brautman reared back and cracked it.
"It's happening," an assistant coach yelled from the dugout.
Brautman sent the ball to the right-center wall and snapped his aluminum bat in the process. It was a sign of the day that was in store.
Arkansas City broke a 12-year drought Wednesday. The Bulldogs had not qualified for the state baseball tournament since 2006 until their 4-1 regional title against Wellington.
But the Bulldogs hope this is only the start of the special season they have had.
"We don't take a swing off," Brautman said. "We don't take a ground ball off. The thing that separates us from a lot of other teams is that we think 180 feet at a time. We hit a single up the middle, we're trying to get to second any way we can.
"We're just a bunch of scrappy dudes, so when you come out to play us, it's going to be tough to beat us."
Ark City captured a shared AVCTL II title this season with defending state champion Maize South this season. The Bulldogs have one of the deepest, most potent bullpens in Kansas, and, clearly, they can swing a bat.
Two years ago, Ark City won three games. A year ago, it was 12. So far this season, the Bulldogs are 19-3. They were by far the No. 1 seed in their regional and the No. 2 team in Class 4A-Division II.
They have beaten good, solid teams like Maize South, Goddard and Andover Central. They have thrown combined no-hitters and a combined perfect game.
But why is 2018 the year to end Ark City's drought?
First, the Bulldogs are down a classification this season. In years past, with the geographic regional model, Ark City had to get past Carroll and Maize to get to state. Often times, like in 2016, the Bulldogs weren't terrible. Another team was just better.
This year, Ark City had to play Winfield (8-12) and Wellington (10-8) to get to state. The Bulldogs have proven they can compete with some of the bests Kansas has to offer this season, but Winfield and Wellington are not those teams.
Second, Ark City is heavy on experience. Some of those experiences have been losses, but junior Garrett Vandeventer said those failures have helped them become a confident, capable team and know what they are going up against.
"They have stuck together," coach Aaron Bucher said. "There is no doubt about that."
Coupled with that, the players are just better and stronger. Almost every player's average is up. Almost every pitcher's ERA is down. They throw harder and hit farther.
They weren't breaking aluminum bats last year.
Third, the group seems to be, forced or not, genuinely invested in one another. Bucher started the season with 21 players, much less than any other team in AVCTL II.
"We've been playing together since we were 8 years old," senior Hunter O'Toole said. "Chemistry. We've been playing together. We love each other and would do anything for the win."
With such a small group, they didn't have much choice to split into cliques or put their egos in front of the goal. Hunter O'Toole is going to Cowley College. Brautman is heading to Neosho. And Garrett Vandeventer is committed to Wichita State.
It would have been easy to focus on themselves, but they didn't. For that, they are going to state and won their league for the first time since 2000. Bucher said that has been the point all along.
"We've been through some tough times, but it's just what you do," Bucher said. "It's not about me. It's about the kids. When they come back and they turn into good people and good dads and good husbands, that's what it's all about."