WICHITA, Kansas — The Cloud County Community College baseball team pushed top-seeded Hutchinson Community College to the brink in Friday's Region VI/Central District Playoffs elimination game. Unfortunately for the T-Birds, their attempt to knock off the KJCCC West co-champions fell just short as Hutchinson's Logan Sartori delived a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth that lifted the Blue Dragons to a 14-12 victory inside Eck Stadium in Wichita.
"It was a wild, elimination, playoff baseball type of game," said Cloud County head coach, Eric Gilliland. "I think our guys emptied the tank, went toe-to-toe with the No. 1 seed in the tournament, but unfortunately ended up on the wrong side of it. I couldn't be prouder of our effort."
The No. 7 seeded T-Birds (34-24 overall) threw the first punch as they jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first inning against Hutchinson (42-30 overall) starting pitcher, Dylan Nedved.
Cloud County sent 12 batters to the plate in the first inning and recorded seven hits off Nedved, who didn't allow an earned run and struck out 10 in seven innings the last time he faced the T-Birds on May 4.
"I can't say that I saw that coming," Gilliland said of the first inning. "Nedved was very good last time, but we had a lot of well-placed balls more than anything. Lot of big swings and big plays that got us off to the start we wanted."
Sophomore first baseman Kade Wallace had a two-run single up the middle, and freshmen Griffin Larsen, Connor Laux and Alex Rice each added RBI singles in the inning to help chase the Blue Dragons' starter.
Hutchinson's offense, the KJCCC West leaders in home runs and runs scored during the regular season, responded back as the Blue Dragons scored seven unanswered runs over the next three innings to climb within one at 8-7.
Cloud County freshman left-hander Trey Asher was called upon to give the T-Birds some length in the middle innings and the southpaw delivered, throwing a career-long five innings while limiting Hutchinson to three runs on six hits and striking out two.
"I thought Trey was phenomenal. That was something we hadn't really asked him to do this year, but he did it and did it well," Gilliland said. "Usually we've asked him to come in and get us out of a jam, but he did a great job settling in and making a lot of big pitches there in the middle innings. For a freshman on that stage to make as many pitches as he did was phenomenal."
While Asher settled things down on the mound, the T-Birds built their lead back up to 11-7, courtesy of a RBI triple from sophomore Grant Schmidt in the fourth, a solo blast from Larsen to lead off the fifth, and a RBI double from Rice later in the inning.
For Larsen, the home run was his eighth this season. He finished 2-for-5 with two RBI and was one of eight different players to record at least one hit in the ballgame, led by Rice's 4-for-4 performance from the No. 2 hole spot.
Freshman leadoff man Clayton Loranger was 3-for-4 with three runs scored, while Schmidt added the fourth multi-hit game for the T-Birds by going 2-for-5 with a team-high 3 RBI.
"The offense was spectacular (Friday). It was a really good day to hit, but we saw some great arms and I thought everybody really executed their jobs," Gilliland said.
It appeared as though Cloud County had weathered the storm at the point, taking an 11-8 lead into the seventh. But the Blue Dragons' offense was able to produce two runs in each of the final three innings, tying the game in the eighth before completing the comeback with the Sartori two-run home run in the ninth.
Cloud County scored one run over the final four innings against Hutchinson right-hander Miguel Reyes Jr. — a RBI single by Schmidt in the top of the eighth — as he struck out seven and held the T-Birds to two hits since coming on in the fifth inning.
"Once they put Reyes in, he was really sharp and he's a guy who has been very good for them in the front of their rotation," Gilliland said. "When he came in during the fifth, the game started to have the 'hang on for dear life' feeling to it at that point. I thought we had the right guys lined up in the bullpen and they've been great for us all year. We had the right guys in and it just didn't work out (Friday)."
Friday marked the final game in a T-Birds' uniform for 16 players, either redshirt freshmen or sophomores, who had a hand in helping push the program forward.
Cloud County finished 27-26 overall last spring, the program's first winning season since 2003, before taking another big step this year as the 34 wins are the most since the 1989 team won a school-record 46. The T-Birds also hosted, and advanced, in its first home playoff series since becoming a member of the KJCCC.
"This sophomore class was a fantastic group of guys and competitors. They were really our first full recruiting class and they've really grown up," Gilliland said. "They've learned how to be college baseball players and handle the adversity. I've learned a lot from them, as well, as we wish them nothing but the best moving forward."
The T-Birds will now head into the offseason with 19 freshmen on the roster eager to keep the program on the steady rise it has enjoyed in each of the last three seasons under Coach Gilliland and his staff, Kody Sindelar and TJ Segebart.
"I think we showed this weekend, playing against three conference championships, that anything is possible with where we're heading. This was a really special group and we knew it from the fall that these were the right type of guys," Gilliland said. "I told them after the game how proud of them I was as baseball players, as people, and of their ability to handle adversity and buy in. It's been a special year with a special group."