Last year, Ark City baseball coach Aaron Bucher brought Haden O’Toole up for the state tournament to be alongside his brother.
Hunter O’Toole was the unquestioned leader of the eventual state champion Bulldogs, and Haden got to experience all of it. In 2019, now a sophomore, Haden is looking to help bring Ark City back to the top.
Wednesday, the Bulldogs won their second straight regional baseball title with a 4-2 semifinal win over Salina Central and 8-4 championship victory over Kapaun Mt. Carmel. All this came on the heels of a 12-year drought. But this year’s crown came in Class 5A without Hunter O’Toole.
“My whole life, I’ve been, ‘The younger brother of Hunter O’Toole,’ ” Haden said. “I love it. He gives me so much competition and has been such a good mentor for me. I really just want to live up to the name.”
April 12, Ark City was 3-4. Garrett Vandeventer, senior pitcher and one of last year’s heroes, said there was a lot of pressure to live up to the title expectations.
“The coaches would tell us, ‘Sometimes doing less is doing more,’ ” Vandeventer said. “At the beginning of the year, we were trying to do too much and trying to compete with who we were last year instead of making our own pathway to success.”
Vandeventer, who is signed with Cowley County and will join Hunter O’Toole next year, is the Ark City ace this year. Bucher said the coaching staff has put a lot of pressure on him, and he has come through. He has two losses this season, but the Bulldogs have zero combined runs in those two games.
Vandeventer is the key is consistency and relying on the defense behind him.
“Keeping that pack mentality has been useful,” he said. “There is no lone wolf. We are all brothers.”
Last year, he and O’Toole formed one of the top pitching duos in Kansas. Now it is Vandeventer and the younger O’Toole looking to bring the Bulldogs a second straight championship.
But it won’t happen the same way.
Watching from the dugout, Haden said last year’s team had unparalleled strength at the plate. The 2019 group has to get it done with small ball and pitching.
Haden is the perfect example of it. In 12 months, he went from a depth player to a starter in the regional championship game. He said the game moves so much faster, but because of his brother’s guidance, he understands the mental side of the game.
Ark City will enter the state tournament with a 13-8 record and the confidence of getting it done in a higher classification.
Bucher said getting there in Class 4A is a little different, and for a group that returned only a couple of starters from last year, doing it in 5A is special. It all started with last year’s success.
“Hunter will be a huge mentor for generations down,” Haden said. “The next few classes will remember Hunter O’Toole and how he did it and what that team started.”