Gage Gerlach’s mother waited in the car as she heard the roars roll through Andale.
Gerlach had just ripped a stand-up triple to the right-field corner to give Mulvane a 5-4 lead over the host in the top of the sixth. Coach Steve Nelson said it was the moment where he felt his group began to feel the gravity of its potential upset.
Mulvane, the No. 13 seed in the Class 4A West regional tournament, entered its semifinal matchup without a win over Andale/Garden Plain in three years. A league rival, the Indians had dominated the Wildcats and the rest of AVCTL IV in virtually every sport.
Gerlach’s triple gave them life. Mulvane went on to win 6-5.
“To be the Cinderella, to be the 13-seed, to be going to the state tournament, it means everything,” Gerlach said.
But his biggest supporter couldn’t see it in front of her. Dorale, Gerlach’s mother, was diagnosed with lymphoma June 17, 2017. She stopped going outside to watch the games from the bleachers last year. Gerlach said it has been hard, but it gives him something else to fight for.
Mulvane made history at its regional tournament. The win over Andale/Garden Plain was only the beginning, as Nelson said. A couple of hours later, after a 4-1 win over Clay Center/Wakefield, the Wildcats clinched their first state tournament appearance and regional championship in about a decade.
“From where we started to where we’ve come, accomplishing this showed the kids so much,” Nelson said. “I got to go way back when I played here in the early 90s, and there’s nothing like it.”
Mulvane has a lot of talented athletes on its baseball roster. The outfield of Gerlach, senior Drew Ellis and junior Cole Diffenbaugh is one of the most accomplished trios in Mulvane’s recent history. And senior pitcher Hunter Dye shoved the door closed on Andale/Garden Plain’s state tournament chances as he struck out last year’s All-Metro selection Caleb Hitt.
But Mulvane had more than a rocky season. The Wildcats went on a six-game losing streak from April 4-12, including getting swept by the same Andale/Garden Plain team they sent home. They scored two runs over those two games against the Indians. They lost to Winfield and Wellington, two teams that didn’t have 20 wins between them while 4A’s top overall seed Fort Scott had 21 alone.
Gerlach said before the semifinal game, he was texting with some Andale/Garden Plain players who told him they didn’t expect to play all seven innings, hinting at a run-rule victory. Nelson said it came down to belief in themselves, and Gerlach provided it.
“I’ve been trying to tell these kids all year long that they’re better than they think they are,” Nelson said. “They showed that.”
After the semifinal win, Gerlach unwrapped the tape around his wrist that read, “6-17-17” marking the day his mom was diagnosed. He said a trip to state would mean everything, especially for his mother after everything she has endured.
“I just want to do everything to make her happy,” Gerlach said. “She’s been struggling with life for the past two years, and I just want to give her that gift.”
Gerlach’s mother spends most of her time in the hospital. He said he goes in at least three or four times a week after baseball practice. The last time she came home was at least two weeks ago, he said.
When Gerlach goes to the hospital and comes home to an empty house, many of the Mulvane players meet him there to keep him company. Ellis, who is in his first and only season with the baseball team, said the connections between the group are outstanding.
Gerlach doesn’t talk about his mother a lot, Ellis said, and he doesn’t have to. His teammates are there to keep things lighthearted. Ellis said after learning about what Gerlach has been going through, he has found the ultimate respect for him.
“He is ridiculously tough,” Ellis said. “It’s so fun watching him play this game.”
Mulvane enters the Class 4A state tournament as the No. 7 seed at 9-11. The Wildcats will face the No. 1 seed out of 4A West, Trinity Academy, in the quarterfinal round at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Salina’s Dean Evans Stadium. They will look to keep the momentum alive and catch lightning twice.
A lot of that burden will fall on Gerlach’s shoulders. Nelson said he is the go-to guy for the Wildcats. He leads the team in plate appearances, hits, runs, stolen bases and batting average at .460. He said his group will be ready for whatever is thrown its way.
“Going through all of this is tough, but it fuels me sometimes,” Gerlach said. “It has brought my family really close. Being in the hospital and talking for hours, it has meant a lot for my family. I think God has got a plan for us, so we will just keep following that path.”