WICHITA— “There’s a, um tradition in tournament play- not talk about the next step until you’ve climbed the one in front of you. I’m sure going to the state finals is beyond your wildest dreams, so let’s just keep it right there.” Coach Norman Dale, Hoosiers
In just two games at last week’s regional, Great Bend took that next step and it was a giant one. A 20-2 climb into Thursday's state tournament opener against Blue Valley West (17-5) has coach Carrie Minton and her Panthers arriving at a long-awaited yet unfamiliar destination following four previous and disappointing regional finishes.
Great Bend played a very difficult schedule over its final four games. A 2-0 sweep over Hutchinson in the final regular season series set up a pair of regional victories over Emporia and Maize South. Now comes the next phase of the journey.
The Panthers enter this year’s state tournament as the third seed and with plenty of fire power from the circle.
Hunter Middleton, this year’s WAC Player of the Year, will bring a 160 season strikeouts into the opener against the sixth seed Jaguars. The Great Bend senior allowed no hits after three innings in a 13-3 blowout of Emporia during the first round at last week’s regional. A two-hit yield in a 2-1 edging of Maize South gave Middleton the complete game win and has the Panthers moving forward with cautious confidence.
“The girls are excited and we’re excited as coaches,” said coach Carrie Minton. “The adrenaline has pretty much worn off and we’ve been able to have a solid week of practice.”
Minton said the third-seeded Jaguars come to state after a very competitive regular season and regional round. “They’ve played some tough teams especially toward the latter part of the season,” Minton said. “From a defensive perspective they have some good pitching but they're pretty selective on their strike zones. Offensively, they have some big hitters who can consistently put the ball into play and they have a tendency to be a high-scoring team. We’re going to have to be disciplined in the box and play some really good defense.”
Five seniors will play their final games this weekend for the Panthers as Kacee Kasselman, Hannah Mauler, Middleton, Dakota Sanders and Regan Unruh will vie together for a state championship.
“Our seniors are a tight-knit group and have worked very hard to get to this point,” said Minton. “They’ve made some big plays for us this season which, in the long run, has also made us a better team. They’ve gotten us to this 20-2 record and they’re ready to go out this weekend and prove why we’re 20-2.”
At the plate, Minton says it will be a wait-and-see approach. “We’ll see what they bring us,” she said. “I think that one thing that is important for us is to make sure that we don’t get ourselves into jams and that we aren’t chasing things outside the zone. We are really going to have to have patience in our pitch selections and not help their pitchers out. We need to hit the ball like we have earlier.”
Minton added that the pitching staff will need to remain focused mentally.
“For Hunter and the rest of the defense, when we step onto the field there’s going to be that adrenaline rush and just the excitement of playing for a state championship. We’ll have to reign in that excitement and make it work for us. We will need to maintain control of the zone and not give their batters any chances and we’ll have make outs quickly.”
All games will be played on Fields A and B at Wichita-Two Rivers Youth Complex at 1700 North Ridge Road.
Action gets underway Thursday evening as undefeated and top seed Bishop Carroll (22-0) faces eighth seed St. Thomas Aquinas at 5 p.m. on Field A. Fourth seed Goddard (19-2) plays fifth seed Tecumseh-Shawnee Heights approximately 20 minutes after the BC vs. STA game also on Field A. Undefeated and second seed Topeka-Seaman (22-0) squares off with Valley Center (14-5, 7th seed) at 5 p.m. on Field B.
Due to the threat of weather Thursday's game against Blue Valley West will begin around 20 minutes after the conclusion of the Topeka Seaman vs. Valley Center game on Field B. The winner of Thursday's GBHS vs. BVW contest will face the victor of the Topeka- Seaman vs. Valley Center game at 10 a.m. Friday morning at WTRYC’s Field A. The winner of the Bishop Carroll vs. St. Thomas Aquinas contest will play the winner of the Goddard vs. TSH game also at 10 a.m. on Friday at Field B. The winners of the two semifinals will play for the state championship between noon and 1 p.m. on Field A. Friday’s consolation game will begin between noon and 1 p.m. on Field B.