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For the record books: Panthers advance to state All ‘A’

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By Kristin Beck

Carroll County High School baseball became the first team in school history April 23, to win one of eight spots in the state All ‘A’ baseball tournament, held May 3-4 at Whitaker Bank Park in Lexington, Ky. The 8th Region Panthers will take on the 3rd Region Hancock County Hornets at noon May 3. The winner will play the winner of Danville and Bethlehem at 8:30 a.m. the next day. The championship game is at 1 p.m.

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Carroll County defeated 7th Region KCD, 6-0, April 23 in the state sectional game. They beat Owen County in the first round of the 8th Region All ‘A’ Classic, then defeated Williamstown and Walton-Verona to win the region.

“I’m on cloud nine,” head coach Jimmy Ray said after the KCD win. “These kids have worked hard. I’ve told them all along, if we worked hard for it, we deserved it. We do; they did a good job, fortunate to coach them.”

Junior Zakk Hicks was fantastic on both sides of the diamond. He pitched a shutout from the mound, striking out 12 batters and giving up no walks. Hicks also was 3-3 from the plate, hitting two doubles off the fence and a single, along with two RBIs. 

“He had a great game pitching, a great game hitting. He really did a fine job,” Ray said. “I’ve said it all along for years. I have all the confidence in the world in that guy pitching. I’ve been very fortunate to have coached him since he was 10 years old play(ing) a lot of summer baseball and I don’t know how many times he’s been on the mound and won big games for us. He’s a gamer and he showed it tonight.”

Ray said the Panthers prepared for KCD’s southpaw pitcher and were surprised when righty Parker James took the mound to start. The Panthers hit a couple hard grounders early and got things started with Hicks’ two-out double off the fence in right-center field in the bottom of the second. Austin Crowell followed, crushing the ball for a triple to center field, 1-0.

The Bearcats sat down in order in the top of the third, including two strikeouts for Hicks, bringing the Panthers’ offense back to the plate. Justin Ray led off with a single to center, followed by a double to center by Austin Dunn. John Michael Adams drew a walk to load the bases, and KCD head coach Joseph Maione took a walk to the mound. His pep talk worked for a little while, as the next two Panthers struck out. But Jackson “Boo” Donahue made sure his teammates’ efforts were not wasted, making the KCD defense work by putting the ball in play. He was rewarded as a throwing error by the second baseman forced the first baseman to pull his foot. Ray scored on the play, 2-0. Hicks hit an RBI single to center for another Panther run, 3-0.

Once again, the Bearcats went down 1-2-3, and KCD made a pitching change on defense, bringing in Casey Klein. Klein allowed a single by Ray, but was able to escape the inning without damage.

In the top of the fifth, the Bearcats’ leadoff hit a groundball up the middle off Hicks’ glove that was picked up by shortstop Adams coming across the field that could have been marked as their first hit of the game. The runner advanced on a sacrifice bunt and an error, but was left stranded at third.

The Panthers added another run in the bottom half, as Seth Hicks singled and Zakk Hicks brought him home with a double off the left field fence, 4-0.

KCD earned a hit in the top of the sixth, a double to right field, but after a trip to the mound by assistant coach Brian Crank, Hicks forced a groundout to Keifer McIntyre at first base to end the inning.

Jacob Wise led off the bottom of the sixth with a bunt single and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Ray. Both runners were safe on the fielder’s choice play as Wise beat out the throw to third. Alex Burns subbed in as a pinch runner for Ray, who appeared to pull a leg muscle in the third. Burns stole second base and the attempted throw down to third was wide, allowing Wise to score. Dunn hit a sac fly to right to score Burns, 6-0.

Head coach Ray said he asked Hicks if he wanted to pitch over the weekend or close out the game, meaning he had to rest for three days. The junior flamethrower chose to finish it. After giving up a leadoff single, he struck out the next three batters swinging to end the game.

“Before the original All ‘A’ started, I told them for three or four days, Pastor Pat (Butcher) gave a big sermon at our church about if you say things long enough you believe it. ‘You keep saying it, you believe it,’ over and over,” Ray said. “Even a week before the All ‘A’, every night we talked about being All ‘A’ champions and for the last week, we talked about making history. I told them last night, I sent them all a text before they went to bed, and I said, ‘Before you go to bed tonight, lay there and visualize getting a hit, making a big play in the outfield, visualize winning this game in your mind and just believe it and it’s going to happen.’ We’ve been saying it for a week, and our dreams came true.”

Ray praised the Panthers’ team chemistry, citing it as a major factor in their success. “Everybody gets along so well, and that’s a team win,” he said. “The guys in the dugout, they’re in here get(ting) everybody fired up and patting them on the back … We don’t have any attitudes, everyone gets along great. It’s our strength, and it shows. Team chemistry, to me, it means a lot.”

When looking ahead to the state playoff game last week, it seemed Carroll County’s chances of winning were a little slimmer, as five of the team’s six seniors were scheduled to be in New York for the senior trip. The seniors left Wednesday and are supposed to return Sunday. However, Ray said Wednesday morning that some of them are going to try and make it back Saturday for the game.