BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Three times last weekend the Kokomo Wildkats baseball team found themselves in a hole. And three times they found a way to pull off a victory. The result of a 3-0 weekend was a perfect start for the Class 4A No. 5 (April 24 coaches poll) Wildkats and a 12-0 record midway through the campaign.
“To get off to a 12-0 start is really a testament to the kids buying into the team concept and believing in one another,” said Kokomo head coach Sean Swan. “You don’t get to those points without a lot of contributions from a lot of guys.”
On April 21, Kokomo found itself down to 3A No. 6 Western (7-2) in the second inning. Kaleb Howard led the inning for the Panthers with a double, Tyler Burthay was hit by a pitch, Reagan Carter laid down a sacrifice bunt and Pat Mills ripped an RBI single. After a strikeout, number nine hitter Cooper O’Neal laced a two-run single for a 3-0 lead. In the bottom half of the inning, Western gave the Kats a run back – Noah Hurlock was hit by a Brodee Lipinski pitch, went to second on a wild pitch and scored on a fielding error.
Western scored an unearned run off Wildkat starter Bayden Root thanks to a pair of fielding errors and led 4-1 going to the bottom of the fourth. With freshman Connor Linn taking the hill for the Panthers, Quamielle Belt ripped a one-out single, DaShawn Barbary followed with a single and junior Nate Hemmerich loaded the bases after getting hit with a pitch. Following a strikeout, Jack Perkins cleared the bases with a triple to tie the game. He scored on a wild pitch to give the Wildkats a 5-4 lead.
Western could not take advantage of two more Kokomo errors in the fifth inning and left the bases stranded. Root then took over and retired the last six Panther hitters in order to secure the 5-4 win in front of the largest regular season high school crowd in Kokomo Municipal Stadium history – estimated at 900 strong.
The next day, Kokomo swept a doubleheader against Warsaw, 6-2 and 4-3. Hemmerich was the star of the day in both come-from-behind wins. The junior picked up the complete game win in game one (six hits, one earned run, four strikeouts) and had a walk-off single in game two to score Kenny Burton after the backup catcher had doubled to lead off the bottom of the seventh. Hemmerich was 3 for 4 and reached in all four at-bats in game two; he also scored twice in game one. Kyle Wade had a sixth inning two-run double and Perkins had an RBI double in the nightcap.
“When guys like Burton can come in and produce when they don’t get much playing time is important,” said Swan. “Some of our bench guys were huge last Saturday and again today. Getting contributions from guys across the board will be huge for us down the road. Good teams find ways to win.”
Baseball fans have been following this group of Kokomo High School athletes for years. Three of those are junior pitchers who are all NCAA Division I prospects. And while the young talent took time to adjust to the varsity level (26-28 in first two seasons), they are gelling this year as Kokomo stands atop the North Central Conference West Division with a 6-0 record.
“I think a lot of it has to do with maturity,” said Swan. “They were kind of thrown to the wolves as freshmen and sophomores – they had to learn on the job. Most kids their age were playing junior varsity and learning the job, but we asked these guys to jump right in and wins games. They took their lumps, but I think the lessons they learned are starting to pay off now.”
Wade, an uncommitted junior, has been sensational this year on the hill. In four appearances, he is 3-0 with one save and a perfect ERA of 0.00. He has thrown two complete game shutouts and has given up just nine hits in 17 1/3 innings with two walks and 17 strikeouts. He is batting .324 with 11 RBI’s and scored the game-winning run against Logansport.
“What Kyle has done the last two weeks is pretty special,” said Swan.
Root, a junior with a verbal commitment to South Carolina, is 3-0 with 22 strikeouts in 15 innings. Classmate Jack Perkins (verbal commitment to Louisville) is 2-0 with a 1.62 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched – his fastball was also clocked at 96 miles per hour by scouts at Kokomo Municipal Stadium. And while Wade, Root and Perkins have scouts following them, Hemmerich is 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA and a pair of complete game efforts. Freshman Charez Butcher is also earning limited playing time and has been clocked by scouts at 93 mph. Brian Harding (Rock Valley College signee) is 1-0 with a 1.11 ERA.
“We are extremely deep,” said Swan. “We are very fortunate in regard to the number of quality arms we can put out there on the mound. That bodes well for us.”
Swan said Kokomo’s wins are not always easy – as noted in last weekend’s three-game sweep.
“We have won in a variety of ways,” said Swan. “We got off to the quick start against Riley and played well against Jeff. I told the guys we would have some challenges; Harrison and Logansport were.”
While pitching is the focal point of the Kats success, Swan noted the improved hitting for Kokomo. Thus far, the Wildkats have improved its team batting average from .265 last year to .333 this season. A trio of seniors are leading the Kats in hitting: Belt leads the team with a .450 batting average (9 for 20), Perry McCullum is hitting .389 (14 for 36) and DaShaun Barbary is hitting .375 (9 for 24). Junior Colt Munsey is batting .367, Perkins is hitting .351 (team leading four home runs and 20 RBIs) and Harding is at .333.
“I think it goes hand-in-hand with our pitching,” said Swan. “Hopefully it allows our pitchers not to feel like they have to be perfect every inning because of a lack of run support. They know when they get on the mound we are going to get them some runs, which hasn’t happened in the past.”
Kokomo has a busy, and challenging, week with an NCC road-trip to McCutcheon (8-2, 2-2 NCC) on April 25, a home game with (Class 4A honorable mention) McCutcheon on April 26, the annual Teachers Appreciation Day battle with Northwestern (4-7) at Municipal Stadium on April 28 and a road twin bill at (3A honorable mention) Brebeuf (4-11) on April 29.