KEARNEY — Kearney and Millard West are developing a thing.
Back in the high school baseball season, Kearney knocked off top-seeded Millard West in the district tournament. The Wildcats recovered, however, winning the state tournament.
This summer, Kearney Runza and Millard West (Roof Tech) split a pair of games with Kearney winning 3-2 on June 28 and Millard West winning 11-3 on June 7.
The next meeting will have some extra meaning as Kearney Runza and Millard West square off at 7 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the Nebraska American Legion Class A State Tournament-National Division at Kearney’s Memorial Field.
“Millard West certainly is a tough draw for us. ... Millard West is always a tough matchup for anyone and they’ve had a great summer,” Kearney coach Brad Archer said.
Kearney (32-10) has had a good season as well, even if its streak of 14 consecutive area tournament championships came to an end with a loss to Hastings in the tournament final in North Platte.
Hastings’ victory advanced it to the American Division of the state tournament in Omaha. Kearney, already qualified as the National Division host, can still claim it earned its spot by finishing second as the top two teams from each area tournament advance to state play. However, Kearney’s second-place finish opened the door for Scottsbluff to qualify for the tournament in Kearney.
The American Division has four of the seven area champions, while the National Division has three champions — Papillion, Millard West and Lincoln Southwest.
“I don’t know if there is a good side or a bad side,” Archer said of the two tournaments. “They’re a little bit different brackets this year with Omaha Westside and Omaha Burke not making it through districts. Those are teams that are certainly good enough to be in the state tournament.”
Lincoln Southwest has always represented Lincoln well, according to Archer, and Gretna has a good summer, performing admirably in the Kearney/Hastings tournament, beating Kearney that weekend.
Omaha South earned a state tournament berth for the first time since 1976, but that might not have been a complete surprise. In a conversation with the Omaha South coach during the high school season Archer learned that the team expected the return of anywhere from six to eight “Legion babies” — boys born in the window that would allow them to return to their Legion team after spending a year in college.
“They thought they would be very much improved over what they had in the spring,” Archer said.
Long season for Kearney
Kearney players are experiencing their longest baseball season ever.
Fielding a high school team for the first time, the overwhelming majority of Kearney’s players played 28 games before the Legion season started. They now have endured a 70-game schedule.
“I don’t know if it’s affected them that much at all,” Archer said. “We recognized coming in that for us it was going to be a lot longer season than what we’re accustomed to.
“We cut back on the number of games we played this summer. We took a weekend off, which we’ve never done before. And then I think we did a good job throughout the course of the season of taking more days off than what we’ve done in the past.”
With the reduction of on-field activities, Archer said it was hoped that the players would not get burned out playing a longer season, and the chance of injuries would be reduced.
Pitching is the key
Runza’s strength throughout the season has been its pitching. The team ERA is 2.38.
Noah Carpenter and Keegan Thurston have evenly split the heavies load with each getting eight victories. Thurston has 52 strikeouts in 52 innings and Carpenter has 40 strikeouts in 52 2/3 innings.
Seth Stroh, Mason Casper and Jaxon Worley have pitched between 36 and 38 innings and have four or five wins to their credit.
“For us to be successful, it starts on the mound. We need to throw strikes there,” Archer said. “We need to play good defense. If we do that we’ll be right in every game. Then it’s a matter of if we can muster up enough runs to win.”
The offense has been inconsistent, but it has produced nearly 300 runs and 324 hits for a .309 batting average.
“We haven’t necessarily played up to where I think we should be up to this point in time,” Archer said. “Probably our best baseball was in the month of June. We certainly played great baseball in the Kearney/Grand Island tournament the last weekend in June where we were able to beat Millard West, Millard South, Papillion and Bellevue East. That weekend we played exceptionally well. All four starters went complete games. I thought we executed well offensively.
“Since then we’ve struggled a little bit.”
Those struggles have extended to the pitching and defense.
“All of a sudden we kind of lost track of the strike zone and those kind of things,” Archer said.
Stroh carrying the hot bat
Stroh is batting .440 for the season with three home runs and 36 RBIs. He is riding a 15-game hitting streak and has been on fire the last eight games, batting .682 (15 for 22).
Casper has had the other hot bat with a .406 average and a team-high nine doubles.