Matthew Gagliano remembers the first time he stepped into the batter’s box at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.

“I was the leadoff guy, and I was walking up to take my first at-bat and I was shaking, literally shaking,” the Rowan County senior said. “Could barely get the bat off my shoulder.”

That was two years ago, when the Vikings made their first state tournament trip since 1983. Emotions ran high because of that and because the Vikings were fighting for coach Keith Prater, who had been diagnosed with leukemia two days before the tournament. He died about six weeks later.

Rowan County has mourned, remembered and risen in an eventful two years since then. The Vikings will be back in Lexington today, and coach Scott Collins expects his team’s approach will be a little bit different than the last time.

“It’s just businesslike,” Collins said. “When we won the region, we celebrated that night, and the next day, we were back at it. ... We’re not content; we’re not happy so much with what we’ve already accomplished. I mean, we are, but we do realize that we’ve got bigger goals out there, and that’s what they’re looking forward to.”

The Vikings (39-3), owners of a 31-game winning streak and tied for the most victories in a season in 16th Region history, meet McCracken County (31-7) in the state quarterfinals.

Rowan County became only the eighth team in recorded state history to surpass 400 runs in a season in its Semi-State 8 victory over Lawrence County on Saturday. The Vikings have coupled the most prolific offense in region history with a lights-out pitching staff that leads the commonwealth in earned run average (1.18).

In other words, handing the likes of AJ Hacker, Mason Moore, Gagliano and Chase Alderman two runs is typically sufficient. Rowan County is averaging 9.6 runs per game anyway.

“If we can put a few runs on the board early on, those guys know what to do with the ball after that,” Collins said. “It’s a confidence booster, that’s for sure.”

Collins declined to name today’s starter earlier in the week. He can hardly go wrong by tabbing Hacker, Moore or Gagliano — all three have pitched effectively on the state stage.

Hacker, who has been named Mr. Baseball and the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year, allowed two earned runs over seven innings against Muhlenberg County in the round of 16 as a sophomore. Gagliano took the loss in extra innings in relief in that game, but he didn’t allow an earned run over 1 1-3 frames.

Moore topped them both pitching for Paintsville last season. He threw a complete-game two-hitter in a 3-1 Tigers victory over Christian County in last year’s first round.

Hacker is fourth in the state in ERA (0.55) and tops in strikeouts (129 in 76 2-3 innings of work). So he cast a glance over McCracken County’s statistics with an interested eye.

“A lot of their guys have a lot of strikeouts,” Hacker said. “We’re really going to try to take advantage of that and go after their hitters.”

Nine Vikings who have batted 63 times or more have an average of .300 or higher. Hacker leads the way there, too, with a .461 average and 52 runs batted in. Shane Taylor (.447, 50 RBIs), Corey Binion (.422, 48 RBIs) and Devon Stevens (.402, 43 RBIs) have also hit north of .400 and knocked in more than 40 runs.

“The big thing is our plate approaches,” Collins said. “When we go in there trying to hit the long ball, we pop it up, we strike out, whatever. If we’ll sit back and try to focus on what their actual best pitch to hit is, and if they’ll try to zone in on that, we start hitting solid line drives. ... One-through-nine, we’re pretty solid.”

Added Taylor: “We have a very good offense as well. Obviously pitching is our main thing, but we’ve been able to put up runs when we’ve needed to.”

The Mustangs will attempt to slow that merry-go-round with a staff that has assembled the third-best ERA in the state (1.67). Jacob Ehling sports a 0.84 ERA, and Dylan Schneider’s stands at 1.01.

Ehling allowed one run over 6 1-3 innings in McCracken County’s 3-1 defeat of Paducah Tilghman in the First Region Tournament final. Schneider yielded one run in a six-inning complete game in the Mustangs’ 14-1 dismissal of Hopkinsville in the Semi-State 1 contest.

Those two drew mention from McCracken County coach Geno Miller as players that make the Mustangs go, as well as Grant Davis (.363, 24 RBIs), Ben Higdon (.365), catcher Reese Hutchins (.333) and center fielder Kiael Waldon (.296).

McCracken County formed by consolidation of Heath, Lone Oak and Reidland for the 2013-14 school year. The Mustangs have won the First Region title every season of their existence.

“Kids are gonna have a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of the unknown there,” Miller said. “There’s still gonna be butterflies there, but I think they’re gonna know how to handle those things a little bit and it is definitely a benefit to have been there before.”

Miller said making the trek to Whitaker Bank Ballpark hasn’t gotten old yet.

“It’s very humbling, and you just feel very blessed to go to six straight tournaments,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of high schools that would love to go to one.”

The game matches two of the top seven teams in the final coaches association poll of the year. Rowan County rated fifth and McCracken County was seventh.

Gagliano and Moore conceded the Vikings have had success even beyond their lofty expectations so far. That doesn’t mean they’re content.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to be this good,” Moore said. “We just really pushed ourselves for this moment, and it’s finally paying off.”

First since ’71?

Because of how the postseason was set up then, Rowan County’s run to the 1983 final four didn’t count for any state tournament wins — the sectional tournament encompassed the rounds of 16 and eight. Neither did the 2019 Vikings’ Semi-State 8 whitewashing of Lawrence County on Saturday. So, at least as far as the KHSAA is concerned, Rowan County remains in search of its first State victory since 1971, when the Vikings knocked off Mayfield in the quarterfinals and Trinity in the semifinals before falling to Daviess County, 3-1, in the title game.

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zklemme@dailyindependent.com