BY DEAN HOCKNEY
LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Ask anyone on the Kokomo High School baseball team, and they will admit they needed this one. For four seasons, Wildkat Nation has talked about the potential of the class of 2018, only to be disappointed in tournament play. But for two consecutive weekends, long after starting the season ranked No. 2 before falling completely out of the polls, the Wildkats showed the state they are coming alive at the right time.
In the North Central Conference baseball tournament, the Kats disposed of Muncie Central a week ago before taking down Harrison 11-1 in the semifinals and West Division champion McCutcheon 6-4 in the title game – on the Mavericks home field, no less. It was the first NCC title for the baseball program since 2010.
“Yes, we needed this,” said senior Bayden Root after posing for a team picture with the NCC championship trophy. “Man, this team needed this. I love playing with this team and I am glad I could contribute today.”
“This was a long-time coming,” said Kokomo head coach Sean Swan. “There were a lot of expectations for this group, and last year they came up short. I am happy for them. They have done a great job and I am thrilled they have a chance to experience this. You play to win, and now they will have their picture in the halls of Kokomo High School.”
Jack Perkins, who was a star at the plate and on the field during the final two games, was all smiles after the game.
“This is huge for us – McCutcheon has always been a rival whether it was football, basketball, or especially baseball,” said Perkins, noting the Mavericks won the two regular season contests by scores of 2-1 and 7-1. “We worked hard for this since our freshman year. We love representing Kokomo. Yes, we needed this, especially going into sectional.”
Root picked up the championship game victory after pitching the first 5 2/3 innings. He gave up three runs and five hits with nine strikeouts before giving way to Kyle Wade in a crazy sixth inning. With Kokomo leading 4-1, Root got the first two Mavericks hitters out – the second a fly to left field off the bat of Evan Allen.
But as Allen – who hit a fourth inning solo home run – crossed the field, he and Root got into a minor yelling match. According to game management, both had been warned earlier in the game after the home run, and the home plate umpire quickly told both to stop after the flyout. While Root returned to the mound, Allen kept yelling and began to return to the pitcher’s mound, resulting in a near benches-clearing incident (several McCutcheon players entered the field while Kokomo kept most of its bench at a distance). The field umpire immediately threw Allen out of the game, and after several tense minutes, order was restored (no punches were thrown, verbal only).
Unfortunately for Kokomo, the next five McCutcheon hitters reached, scoring two runs and looking for more. But Kyle Wade came on in relief and broke off a perfect breaking ball on the outside corner for a called third strike on Kobe McNeely to halt the rally.
“We had a great approach all day today,” said Root. “I could just tell going to the bus that this was going to be a special day. We are in a good spot right now. Jack threw amazing (in the semifinal game); that is the great thing about playing with great guys, you want to come out and match that in the evening.”
After Kokomo went down 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh, Wade came out and earned the save, ending the game with a second backward K to set off a Wildkat celebration.
The Kats started the game strong as Jack Perkins singled and scored on a Noah Hurlock one-baser. It was 2-0 after two courtesy a Jaden Armfield single and Perkins RBI base hit. Kokomo made it 4-0 in the top of the third after Wade reached on an error, Root walked and Armfield and Nate Hemmerich following with RBI singles. Leading 4-1, the Kats put two more on the board in the sixth: Hemmerich and Payton McClain each singled and scored on a Noah Hurlock double.
Kokomo finished with 10 hits – Perkins had two singles, Hurlock had a single and double with three RBIs and Armfield and Hemmerich both had two singles and an RBI.
Earlier in the day, Kokomo (15-8) disposed of Harrison 11-1 in six innings – and the outing belonged to Perkins. The senior dominated on the hill with a three-hit, no walk, nine strikeout performance – the lone run by Harrison was unearned. At the plate, Perkins put the game away with a grand slam in the fourth inning. He also had a double and triple while scoring twice.
“I was just trying to come out and compete,” said Perkins. “My last couple of starts was off of where I wanted to be. So, I just came out and wanted to get in front of hitters, which I did. And at the plate, I am just seeing the ball really well right now.”
“On the mound, we were as good as we’ve been all year,” said Swan of the trio of Perkins, Root and Wade. “It is what we hoped was coming and they are now coming into their stride. They commanded the zone and were ahead in the count – and offensively, we got some runs on the board early.”
The Kats had 13 hits against Harrison (13-11), including a walk-off, game-ending two-run home run off the bat of Wade, who had three hits and three RBIs. Root also had two hits in the win.
The NCC title was the 13th in Wildkat history, joining the squads from 1966, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010. Kokomo closes its regular season with road trips at Westfield (May 14) and 4A No. 1 Huntington North (May 17) before celebrating Senior Day with a doubleheader against Muncie Central on May 19. Ironically, the Kats open sectional play against No. 10 McCutcheon at Kokomo Municipal Stadium on May 23 – a fourth meeting between the NCC rivals.