BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Back-to-back. Two-in-a-row. Unblemished. Dynasty. All of those terms were thrown around the South Side Cal Ripken League diamond as baseball fans debated where H.P. McPike belongs in the 56-year history of the annual Howard County baseball tournament. On June 21, McPike of UCT downed Russiaville’s Lion’s Club 4-2 to claim the David A. Kasey Memorial Howard County Youth Baseball Tournament championship (sponsored by the Kokomo Tribune), the Ralph Stewart Insurance trophy, and a second consecutive undefeated 29-0 season. And in the process, the debate started on where this team belongs in local baseball lore.
“This is what our 12 year-olds wanted – to go out on top,” said McPike manager Jason Hurlock after the county title game. “I don’t know about history, I guess that is pretty cool. It hasn’t sunk in yet. We talked to the kids before the game, and I never really thought about it. I guess it really doesn’t happen very often – a team going undefeated to win the (county) championship. And we won it two times in a row. Wow!”
McPike is the second repeat champion to hail from UCT and the first to go back-to-back in more than 20 years. This group of 11 talented youngsters joins an elite group that includes Schwinn (SS) in 1989-1990, Stellite (SS) in 1971-1972, Nationals (NS) in 1964-1965, and the first repeat champs, UCT’s Coca-Cola in 1958-1959.
“It really didn’t come up during the season,” said Hurlock. “It was a pretty easy run during the regular season, so there really wasn’t the pressure of having to win to keep the streak alive. I am just grateful to be around such a great group of players, coaches and parents.”
McPike ends its two-year domination of Howard County with a pair of Kasey titles, two league championships and a 58-game winning streak. It has been so dominant in the Kasey tourney that McPike pitchers have yielded just 15 runs in its last 12 tournament games, while its offense has produced 148 tallies. This season, McPike won its first 23 games by the 10-run rule and scored (and won by) double-digits in every game except the title bout against the strong pitching of the Lion’s Club.
Much like last year’s title game when McPike defeated White’s Meat Market of Russiaville 4-3 in the bottom of the sixth inning, this was battle from start to finish. With more than 1,000 fans surrounding the 200-foot diamond, an early pitchers dual erupted as McPike’s Jack Perkins struck out six batters in the first two innings and LC’s Tyler Knepley whiffed four – leaving the game scoreless after two.
In top of the third, Conner Allen was hit by a Perkins pitch, took second and third on wild pitches, and scored the game’s first run on a Cooper O’Neal ground out. But McPike roared right back as Nate Hemmerich – who had the game-winning hit a year ago – rocked a no-doubt home run into the left field crowd to tie the game after three innings.
“It was a relief when Nate hit that home run,” said McPike assistant coach Scott Perkins. “You never know how kids will react in a close game, and we made the best of the situation.”
The tie didn’t last long as Lion’s Club No. 3 hitter Sebastian Olson produced a bunt single and scored when clean-up hitter Luke Lushin singled. Nolan Starkey then reached, and Lushin and Starkey advanced to second and third on a wild pitch. But Perkins regained his composure and mowed down the next three batters to get out of a two-on, no-out jam.
“That was big, getting those three strikeouts,” said Hurlock. “It shows how tough a pitcher Jack is.”
McPike took the lead for good in the bottom of the fourth inning. Perkins reached first on an infield single and reached third on a bang-bang play following a throwing error. Noah Hurlock then ripped a shot to the right field fence, and by the time the ball reached home plate, Hurlock had rounded the bases for an inside-the-park home run and the eventual game-winning run.
Perkins pitched the fifth inning, yielding to Hurlock who closed the door on the Lion’s Club with three, sixth inning strikeouts.
Perkins earned legendary status himself as he appeared in his second straight Kasey championship game, giving up two runs on three hits while striking out 12 to grab the win. Opponents will be glad Perkins is a 12 year-old and moving on to a higher level of play. In two championship game appearances, he has pitched 10 innings, earning a pair of victories while registering 20 strikeouts, six hits and just two earned runs. He also had a home run and a double in last year’s championship game.
“We knew it would be a tough game, I mean Russiaville is a tough league with three teams in the Final Four,” said Scott Perkins, who doubled as the proud father of the winning pitcher. “Their pitchers did an awesome job. We knew it was going to be a pitchers game going in. But our kids never backed down and they haven’t backed down in two years. It is sad it is over for our 12 year-olds – it was a great run. Yes, I am proud of Jack.”
After the game, Lion’s Club head coach Shannon Knepley praised his team’s efforts, and acknowledged the strength of the two-time champions.
“I don’t think many people besides us thought we had a chance in this game, and rightfully so because they are very talented and are great kids,” said Knepley. “But our guys came out and fought and pitched really well. We held them at bay and came up with great opportunities to score. I am proud of them. We set a goal to be here, and we made it. We never got rattled – a base hit and things could have gone differently.
“But again, my hat goes off to them. It is really hard to go two years without a loss and stay focused every time you go out. That team will be one to remember – they are solid and are tough outs from one through nine.”
And thus the debate begins on where the 2011 and 2012 H.P. McPike teams will stand in the long and strong history of Howard County youth baseball. But one thing that cannot be debated is the fact they are a two-time Howard County champion. They have taken on all-comers for two years and sent every team home with a loss. That is an amazing run for an amazing team.