The Manhattan High baseball team knew exactly what it was playing for against the Washburn Rural Junior Blues when it arrived at Norvell Field Tuesday afternoon.
A Centennial League title, the top seed at next week’s regional, and the chance for Manhattan’s 13 seniors to win on senior day against one of the top teams in the league this season were all on the table.
With a doubleheader sweep — winning 4-0 and 10-0 — the Indians achieved the desired outcome, ending the regular season as league champs for the first time since 2006.
Manhattan head coach Don Hess said this group of seniors was special from the start.
“We’ve been looking forward to their senior years for a long time,” he said. “They had a real good freshman year when they were down there, and they’ve steadily gotten better. For them to be able to walk away as league champs is special, and we’re extremely proud of each and every one of them.”
While both Rural and Manhattan were assured of hosting Class 6A regionals next week, the top overall seed, and the right to face a set of lower-seeded teams for a trip to state, was still up for grabs. The Indians will learn which teams they will host at a seeding meeting on Saturday morning. Lawrence High, Lawrence Free State and Olathe Northwest are all in the mix for seeds 3-5.
“You’ve still got to show up and win two games,” Hess said of his team’s No. 1 seed. “Our guys earned that opportunity, and we just hope that we can stay sharp and stay focused, get through graduation and show up next week ready to move onto the next step.”
Manhattan senior pitcher Henry de Noble, who threw seven scoreless innings in Game 1, said the team can’t be satisfied with just a league title.
“It feels great, but we can’t be done yet, so we’ve got to keep working,” he said. “We’ve played together since freshman year when we went 18-0, so we know we have it here and the potential to keep playing.”
Manhattan earned the sweep behind a pair of dominant pitching performances, keeping Rural off the scoreboard all day, with de Noble earning the win in Game 1 while scattering six hits and striking out six, while Jesse Steinbring pitched the nightcap with similar results, allowing just five hits while striking out six.
“It helps when you have your pitchers throwing zeroes on the board, because that’s a good team,” Hess said of Rural. “That’s a big, strong team. For us to be able to sweep them is tremendous for our program because they’re great.”
The Indians were also sharp on defense, committing just one error all day while turning three double plays. Offensively, they found timely hits in the first game before unloading in the second game, earning the run-rule victory while scoring in all but one inning.
“Our goal was to try and score every inning,” Hess said. “We tried to do that, and we had some guys get some big base hits. It’s not a finished product, but we had some guys do some nice things.”
In Game 1, Manhattan (18-2) staked de Noble to an early lead with a single run in the second inning behind Alex Huerta’s two-out single to score Chris Klug, who led off the inning with a base hit.
The Indians got single runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth inning to give de Noble some breathing room, as Bret Fehr led off the fifth with a double that turned into a run, while Mike Leeper smacked a two-out double to score Jonah Webber, who reached base to start the sixth after being hit by a Blake Peterson pitch.
De Noble said playing a quality opponent with so much on the line brought out the best in him.
“It’s fun to play teams like that, you feel like you’re throwing better and the adrenaline kicks in,” de Noble said. “You keep going harder and harder as the game goes on and find that extra gear.”
In the second game, the Indians came out swinging, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first after Fehr took a four-pitch, leadoff walk and scored on Jacob Biller’s sacrifice fly. Manhattan’s second run came on a passed ball.
Leeper hit another double to leadoff the second inning, scoring on a balk by Rural starter Michael Singer.
The Indians broke through in the third inning, with Biller leading off with a double, with a walk and an error to load the bases. Leeper was hit by a pitch to force in a run, with catcher Tyler Wohler taking a bases-loaded walk to make it 5-0. Fehr hit a two-RBI single to give Manhattan runners at the corners with two outs.
Rural had Fehr picked off on the next at-bat, but couldn’t throw him out fast enough, with the ball getting away from the defense while Wohler scored from third to make it 8-0.
The Indians got single runs in the fourth and sixth to end the game, with Leeper providing the final RBI single with two outs.
Steinbring, one of only four non-seniors on the roster, earned the win on the mound, despite the pressure to win the league title outright in the nightcap.
“I like pressure,” Steinbring said. “I’ve always done well under pressure.”
Steinbring said the team has to continue to work if it wants to achieve all of its goals.
“We just have to stay hungry, like we were today,” he said. “We came in with a job to do and we got it done. We need to keep doing that.”