Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

April 20, 2014

Tigers, Cougars set for All 'A' sectional showdown

WEST LIBERTY — Entering the season, Paintsville was going on five years without an All “A” Classic region baseball title. Morgan County hadn’t won one ever.

Both teams changed that earlier this month, and both coaches characterized that among their programs’ top recent accomplishments entering their state sectional game Thursday at 6 p.m. in West Liberty.

The Tigers have two 15th Region Tournament appearances under fourth-year coach John Miller, including reaching the 2012 region final, but Miller called the All “A” region title Paintsville’s greatest achievement of his tenure.

“This is probably the biggest thing they’ve accomplished in years at Paintsville High School, baseball-wise,” he said.

The Cougars haven’t even so much as been in the mix to win a 16th Region All “A” title.

“We hadn’t had many wins in it. Getting to the championship and winning it is huge for us,” first-year Morgan County coach Jared Hammonds said. “The town’s gotten behind us.”

Paintsville and Morgan County were supposed to have at least a passing familiarity with each other by this point.

But the first leg of their scheduled home-and-home series in West Liberty on March 29 was rained out. So the two teams, who haven’t met since 2011, are feeling their way along.

Miller candidly conceded last week, “I do not know anything about Morgan County.”

Whatever knowledge the Cougars have of the Tigers is based mostly upon their personnel at the Little League level, Hammonds said.

“I coached Little League probably for seven or eight years, and some of these boys were all-stars,” Hammonds said. “Always played ‘em, always tough.”

That has certainly translated to the varsity level this season. Paintsville’s 15-3 record entering the week is good for the best winning percentage in the 15th Region, though Johnson Central and Lawrence County each have one more win.

The Tigers have won nine straight games. They claimed the 15th Region small-school title for the first time since going back-to-back in 2008, when they finished as state All “A” runner-up, and 2009.

Paintsville did that behind a quartet of .400 hitters — catcher Gabe Burchell, who leads the way with a .478 mark entering last week, Kash Daniel, Kent Phelps and Taylor Miller.

“I thought we hit the ball real good during the tournament,” John Miller said. ”We beat Shelby Valley 5-4 on a day that we did not hit the ball real good, but after that in round two and the championship, I thought we hit the ball real good.”

The Tigers laced 10 hits in run-ruling Allen Central 12-0 in the semifinals, and topped Betsy Layne 11-3 in the final.

Paintsville has quality victories at Boyd County and Lawrence County to its name.

“I’m tickled to death with our season so far,” Miller said. “We’ve won some big games. At Lawrence County, I don’t think anybody was expecting that, and at Boyd County, I know no one was expecting that.”

The two days prior to Thursday’s sectional, the Tigers have a 57th District seeding home-and-home series with Johnson Central, meaning Miller has some tinkering to do with his rotation.

“Obviously you want to win your district games for the big tournament, but I want to win this All ‘A’ as well,” he said, “so I have some thinking to do as to what my rotation will be pitching-wise when that comes up.”

Morgan County stands 7-10 entering the week under first-year coach Hammonds. It won its first-ever region All “A” title by topping West Carter in eight innings, 5-3, in the final.

The Comets’ standing as a fellow 62nd District foe and as one of the surprise teams in the 16th Region made that win even more significant than it might have been already for the Cougars.

“Getting a win is really big for these kids,” Hammonds said. “I’m proud of the way they came determined.”

Morgan County started the season 1-5, then swept through the 16th Region All “A” Classic with three wins in three days — a 29-1 thumping of Menifee County in West Liberty before 130-mile round trips to Central Park in Ashland and white-knuckle games on back-to-back nights: an 11-10 squeaker over Fairview and their extra-inning win against West Carter.

That was part of a stretch of five wins in six games. Since, the Cougars have dropped four of their last five, but Hammonds said his team has maintained its focus to rebound from its slow start.

“We’re young. We (have) no seniors on the ball club,” Hammonds said. “So these juniors, freshmen and sophomores have really gotta step up, and they have. As long as they keep on listening and buying in, I think we’ll be fine.”

Hammonds credited junior catcher and pitcher Joey Stamper with being “the warrior of the team.”

“He got hurt against Fairview, had to wrap his ankle there twice during the West Carter game,” Hammonds said. “He started at pitching, then he went to catching, and he’s just a great ballplayer all around.”

Two freshmen also came up huge against the Comets, Hammonds said: Sean Gevedon, whose two-out, bases-loaded single in the eighth inning plated Logan Hembree with the go-ahead run, and Coby Lumpkins, who earned the win in relief of Stamper.

Both teams took over for All “A” region champions who no longer meet the size requirement to participate. Prestonsburg had won three straight 15th Region small-school titles, while Bath County won last year’s 16th Region crown.

Thursday’s winner advances to the state All “A” tournament May 3-4 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark in Lexington, where it will face the winner of a sectional between Paducah St. Mary and Caldwell County.

ZACK KLEMME can be reached at zklemme@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2658.

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