Mustangs fall in opener to Knights

By Cole Manbeck

Brandon Lutgen cruised through the first five innings of Friday night’s Class 3A state baseball opener without a bump in the road. But in just a matter of a few minutes, his strong effort on the mound was wiped away.

Salina-Sacred Heart, trailing 1-0, scored three runs in the sixth inning and another five in the seventh to defeat third-seeded Rock Creek 8-1 at Tointon Family Stadium, ending the Mustangs’ hopes of the school’s first state title in baseball.

“Brandon Lutgen pitched one heck of a ballgame,” Rock Creek head coach Chad Herren said. “We had a 1-0 lead till what, the (sixth) inning? Our boys came out to play and they played well.”

Lutgen, who yielded five runs in 6 1/3 innings, had allowed just one hit while striking out eight through the first five innings. But Kyler Stover led off the sixth with a single to right-center. Dalton Dooley, the Knights’ No. 3 hitter, followed Stover’s at bat with an infield hit to short on a 3-2 pitch, setting up the biggest at bat of the game and leaving Sacred Heart head coach Brad Dix with a difficult decision.

The Knights’ best hitter, Blake Jones, was due up with two on and nobody out. Dix, who has guided the Knights to seven state tournaments while at the school, elected to have Jones attempt to bunt the first pitch. Jones failed to get the bunt down, which ultimately proved to be a positive for Sacred Heart. Facing a 0-2 count, Jones smacked a two-run double that one-hopped the left-field wall to give the Knights a 2-1 advantage.

That proved to be all the run support Daniel O’Brien would need. The Knights’ starting pitcher went the distance, allowing just one run on six hits.

“A lot of credit goes to Daniel on the hill,” Dix said. “He threw a whale of a game. They had him on the ropes one inning and he handled things and it just gave the guys confidence.

“This game was exactly how all three of our regional games went. The guys were just playing with a lot of confidence and they just had a feeling that eventually they could get to (Lutgen).”

Rock Creek made an attempt to rally in the bottom of the sixth. Ryan Harshbarger led off the inning with an infield hit to shortstop. Jacob Miller followed with a sharp single to left, giving the Mustangs runners at the corners with no outs. Eric Willard, Rock Creek’s cleanup hitter, smashed a line drive but it happened to be right at first baseman Dylan Bassett, who caught the ball and doubled off Miller at first.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of living right,” Dix said. “Willard smoked two balls tonight and sometimes you get those guys to pop it up, sometimes they hit it at somebody. Sometimes Lady Luck has got to be on your side.”

O’Brien then struck out Trevor Sutton to escape the inning with no damage.

“Eric Willard blistered two baseballs today and if they go either way either time then we’re looking to score two more runs, if not three or four,” Herren said. “That’s tough. Eric hit the ball hard, that’s what we asked him to do all season, that’s what he did tonight.”

The loss ended a strong season for Rock Creek, which finished the year with a 21-3 record while becoming the first Mustang team to make it to state in 12 years.

“I’ve been on this ride with these seniors for four straight years,” Herren said. “We’ve done spring ball, summer ball and we’ve traveled over to Europe a time or two with a couple of the guys. This is a great group. They’re going to go on and be phenomenal men on down the line and they’re going to go on to do great things.

“Looking back I’m not mad or sad about anything, I wish we would have won but I’m proud of this team.”

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