Rock Creek baseball seeks its first state title

By Cole Manbeck

Chad Herren has built his program over the last four years for this very moment — an opportunity to claim Rock Creek’s first state championship in baseball.

“We have a lot of goals coming into every spring and one of them is not only to get to state but to go win it,” Herren said. “We’re right where we should be and hopefully we’re going for it all come Saturday.”

The third-seeded Mustangs, who are making their first appearance at state since 2000, will take on No. 6 seed Salina-Sacred Heart on Friday in their opener at 6:30 p.m. in Manhattan at Tointon Family Stadium.

Led by the development of nine seniors, Rock Creek has significantly improved over the past three seasons to reach this point. The Mustangs, who went 8-13 in 2010, finished 17-5 last season and enter this year’s state tournament with a 21-2 record.

“We are very senior heavy and I think that’s been a big key to our success,” said Eric Willard, a senior on this year’s team. “A lot of us have been starting since freshman, sophomore years, so experience plays a key role in it. But these underclassmen, they do a great job too and compliment us. We all kind of mesh well.”

The Mustangs, the Mid-East League champs, have been dominant this season, losing just once over their final 18 games.  They’ve been challenged by some of the best teams in Class 3A but have prevailed, defeating a 19-4 Rossville team by a score of 5-2 in the final regular-season game to win the league. Rock Creek also swept Silver Lake, the defending state champions, 5-0 and 4-0. The Eagles (17-6), who have won three of the last four state championships at the 3A level, are the No. 5 seed in the 3A state bracket heading into this weekend.

“Night in and night out we go against the Mid-East League teams which is vital because it prepares us for situations like this,” Herren said.

Quality pitching is also vital this time of the year, something the Mustangs possess. Seniors Adam Schmitz and Cody Liming, as well as juniors Shane Adams and Brandon Lutgen, have helped anchor a pitching staff that has held its opponents to two runs or less in 12 games this season. Overall, Rock Creek has allowed just 60 runs on the year, an average of 2.61 runs per game.

“A lot of it comes down to pitching and I think we have one of the deepest staffs in the state,” said Willard, who has pitched some in relief this season. “Every time we step on the field we believe we’re the team to beat. With that supreme confidence going in, I think we’ll be just fine.”

Offensively, the Mustangs have scored 192 runs on the season, an average of 8.35 runs per contest. Coincidentally, Sacred Heart has also scored 192 runs on the year (8.35 runs per game).

“Offensively, top to bottom, I think our one-through-nine is very solid,” Herren said. “A lot of teams at our level can be pretty solid one-through-five but I would like to think our bottom men… they’re producing runs for us day in and day out.”

The result has been a balanced attack of sound pitching and hitting.

“I’m really impressed with these guys,” Herren said. “The season as a whole has been phenomenal. Coming out of the gates these guys have been hard workers from spring on into summer ball.

“Overall, this season has been exactly what we expected. We expect to be where we are today each and every year.”

But the Mustangs aren’t finished yet, as they hope the season-long ride ends with a dog-pile on the field on Saturday evening.

“It would mean the world,” Willard said of a state title. “I don’t think I can put that into words, just for the success of Rock Creek to show what our program is about. Hopefully we can get that ring.”

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