Steve Nelson addressed his team fighting back tears behind his aviator sunglasses as the kids around him did much of the same with what seemed like the entire population of Mulvane around them.
Mulvane had just lost 7-6 to Nickerson in the Kansas Class 4A state baseball semifinals. The Wildcats entered the day with a 10-11 record but were potentially two runs away from a state championship.
“It’s terrible right now,” Nelson said. “There’s no good words unless you’re holding the first-place trophy, but the need to take a deep breath, step back and take a look at what they did.”
Nickerson senior Tanner Schrag stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh with the score tied, the bases loaded and one out. He hit a hard ground ball to third base that got past senior Hunter Dye and ended the best story in Kansas high school baseball.
“They just came together and become brothers,” Nelson said. “They bought in. They battled.”
Mulvane’s story started May 14, two weeks before Tuesday’s semifinal. The Wildcats beat No. 4 Andale/Garden Plain 6-5 in the regional semifinal. It was the first time it had happened, regular or postseason, in three years.
Andale had established a stranglehold on almost all AVCTL IV sports, and Mulvane was often the recipient of that grasp. But the win gave the group a belief that it could. The Cats went on to beat No. 5 Clay Center/Wakefield 4-1 and clinch its first state tournament berth in about a decade.
Mulvane started the state tournament as the No. 7 seed and had to play No. 2 Trinity Academy, a team the Cats got swept by April 12. After those two losses, Mulvane was 2-8.
But at state, Mulvane won 7-0, and the Cinderella story lived on.
Nelson said competition is all he asks of every player he coaches. The 2019 group embodied it.
“They did everything in their power to turn this thing around,” he said. “Record didn’t always look good, and games weren’t always pretty, but the way they battled was unparalleled.”
Buhler’s outstanding spring continues with championship berth
Last year, Buhler came in at No. 15 in The Eagle’s annual athletic program rankings. In 2019, the Crusaders are all but guaranteed a top five spot.
In the spring alone, Buhler has earned a top four finish in girls soccer, a third-place finish in boys tennis and had the 4A doubles champions, and Saturday sprinter Jordan Hawkins won the 100- and 200-meter dashes. The Crusaders added another line to their 2019 resume Monday as the baseball team reached the state championship game with a 10-9 win over top-seeded Fort Scott.
Coach John Neill said it has been a special year. Neill said many of the coaches work together in different sports, so the message is most the same, and the culture has been set across the board.
“When I came here, we were oh-and-whatever,” Neill said. “All we needed was a change of mindset. We wanted to make sure baseball was important in Buhler.”
The magic seemed to be running out by the end of the third inning though.
Down 4-0, Neill told his group to wait; their time was coming. It did in the fourth. The Crusaders not only evened the score but doubled down, scoring eight in the top of the inning for an 8-4 lead.
Fort Scott wasn’t done either. The Tigers scored three more in the bottom of the sixth to make it a one-run Crusader lead.
“I think I lost some hair and gained a couple gray ones,” Neill said.
But with runners on second and third, sophomore pitcher Taiden Hawkinson got Fort Scott junior Brody Bowles to pop out to first base to end it.
With the win, Buhler improves to 21-3 and will play for its second state championship since 2016 against Nickerson. In 2019, the Crusaders have had to battle through a five-day delay and venue change from Salina to Maize to get to the title game.
Neill said he prepared his group for what was likely to happen. In Buhler’s 2016 title, it had to fight with the elements, too. He said the message has been simple.
“Today we just talked about, ‘Enjoy the moment,’” Neill said. “If it’s a long delay, it’s just going to be a good story when you’re older.”