TOPEKA — The nine seniors from Rock Creek baseball huddled together on Seaman High School’s diamond late Monday night, soaking in their final moments wearing their white, black and blue uniforms together. The Mustangs were minutes removed from losing 10-4 in the Class 3A state championship game to Sabetha.
In the heart of the huddle was Karter Carlson.
“We were the 1-seed, and we expected to be the 1-seed. We were really confident. We sat around and watched Sabetha and knew they were a good team,” Carlson said. “They came out and showed it tonight. We put up a fight. We tried to put up the best fight we could, but it just didn’t turn out in our favor.”
Carlson started on the mound for Rock Creek (22-4) but struggled in his lone inning. A senior, Carlson surrendered three runs and only recorded one out before being replaced. Pitching, which was a strength for the Mustangs all season, was shaky Monday.
“We’ve been great on the mound all week and all year for that part,” Rock Creek head coach Shane Sieben said. “We just weren’t tonight, and I think a lot of that is nerves. Some of that is probably taking a couple days off, and some of that is nerves and just not ready or being ready for the moment. But I can’t say enough about our guys. They compete their tails off and continued to fight.”
Carlson cut into Sabetha’s early 5-0 lead through two innings with a solo home run to left field deep into the trees. Carlson said he didn’t feel comfortable on the mound Monday night, but knew he wanted to go up and hit the ball as hard as he could to try to keep his team in the game.
"That's a big credit to Karter and his leadership,” fellow senior Nate Williams said. “He's one of our team captains, and one of the biggest things we talk about is response. ... It doesn't matter what happens; how you respond is going to affect the outcome. I think Karter took that to heart. He was really big for us right there to give us some momentum. Obviously it wasn't enough, but that was big. It showed his leadership and his character."
But when the Mustangs managed to score runs, the Bluejays responded even stronger. After Carlson’s homer, Sabetha plated another five runs, extending their lead to 10-2.
Pitching was a bit of a concern going into the championship game because sophomore Mason Sturdy, who was the fourth pitcher to take the hill for Rock Creek Monday, wasn’t 100%.
"I thought Mason Sturdy pitched fantastic late in the game. He's kind of been injured, and we didn't throw him early because of that,” Sieben said. “We talked about starting him, but he fought through pain, and really gave us some good innings. He said it hurt to pitch a little bit, so we were kind of being cautious."
While Rock Creek didn’t get the team-piling championship celebration Sabetha had, the Mustangs did rally on the field behind Carlson’s homer.
“He's been awesome in those at-bats all year,” senior Toby Becker said. “I'm not sure what he's swinging it now, but last time I checked, he was around .500, and that's amazing. It's especially incredible for him to have a shaky performance on the mound, and then come off and hit one 350 feet."
Though the homer gave Rock Creek its first run, momentum didn't shift enough to alter the final outcome. After Carlson exited, the Mustang pitchers still struggled to throw strikes. Rock Creek’s pitching was especially costly at the beginning of innings. The Mustangs didn’t retire the leadoff batter the first five innings of the game, four of which saw the Bluejays (21-3) go on to score a run.
“(Sabetha was) outstanding tonight,” Sieben said. “All around, from top to bottom they competed and fought and made us make big pitches and we couldn't make the big pitch to get out of an inning with runners in scoring position.”
Rock Creek put several solid swings together in the third inning to move two runners in scoring position, but couldn’t capitalize because Sabetha center fielder Cuay Rokey made a spectacular reaching catch to limit major damage.
Moments before the sixth inning, Sieben gathered his team in the dugout for some late inspiration.
“‘Just keep competing.’ That’s all it can be,” Sieben said. “‘Just one pitch at a time, find a way to extend at-bats and find a way to get into the strike zone.’”
Williams and junior Brooks Whaley did score a pair of runs in the final two innings to keep hopes afloat, but the separation proved too much and Sabetha — which won its second consecutive state title — closed out the contest.
"Sabetha,” Williams said, “they deserved every bit of it today."