Derby had lost its fourth game in two weeks.
The Panthers had watched the ball bounce against them all season, and it did again in a 6-4 home loss to league rival Campus on May 4. Junior Grant Adler, an All-Metro selection in 2018, threw 93 pitches and couldn’t get the win. But coach Todd Olmstead said his group didn’t panic.
“But it seemed like every time we would take two steps forward, something else would happen,” Olmstead said. “The kids did a great job of playing the reigonal on house money. We had nothing to lose.”
Ten days after the Campus loss, Derby went to Gardner-Edgerton for its Class 6A West regional tournament as the No. 13 seed with a 9-9 record. In the Panthers’ semifinal, they put four runs on the board in the top of the third inning and didn’t look back. Adler threw 104 pitches and a complete-game shutout.
A couple of hours later, after a game-changing three-run home run from senior first baseman Bryce Atkinson, Derby reached the Class 6A state tournament for the sixth time in the past seven years with an 11-3 win over Manhattan.
Derby beat two of the top five seeds in Class 6A West. The Panthers had the toughest road of all 6A state qualifiers.
“The Manhattan coach asked me, ‘How the hell are you a 9-9 team?” Olmstead said. “I said, ‘If we didn’t have bad luck, we’d have no luck at all this year.’ But it’s turning around for us. The close calls went our way this time. The balls bounced our way this time, and it’s the right time of the year for that.”
Six of Derby’s nine losses have come by one run this season, playing in arguably one of the strongest baseball leagues in Kansas. Maize, before getting upset in its regional tournament, was a favorite in 5A. Salina South beat Maize and reached state. And Campus is the No. 1 seed in Class 6A.
Against those teams, Derby went 2-4 against those teams but outscored them 33-30.
“We are starting to play like we knew we could and should all season,” Olmstead said.
The best news for Derby is Adler is heating up, or rather the defense behind him is. Olmstead said Adler has three losses on his record this season. Only once, against Maize, the defense didn’t have a crippling mistake that gave the win away on him, Olmstead said.
In Adler’s postseason career, he has thrown three complete game shutouts, has given up five hits and struck out 26 batters. Olmstead he was questioned whether to throw Adler in the regional semifinal or save him for the potential championship game.
He said there was no point in saving him for a game his group might not play in.
In the same way, Adler will take the ball in the Panthers’ first-round game at the Class 6A state tournament at 11 a.m. Thursday at the University of Kansas’ Hogland Stadium.
The Panthers will get their third shot against Campus, a fitting way to start the state tournament after last year’s third-place game was called off between the rivals.
“We’re the eighth seed, but nobody wants to play this eighth seed,” Olmstead said. “It has snowballed, and hopefull it continues.”