Rowan County already possessed the deepest baseball pitching staff in the 16th Region as of last offseason.
AJ Hacker, a Morehead State signee, put up a sparkling 0.71 earned-run average for the region runner-up Vikings last year. Matthew Gagliano so adeptly established himself as one of the top No. 2 options in the region that Hacker called him a “one-and-a-half” rather than a 2. Chase Alderman notched a sub-3 ERA in part-time work as an eighth-grader, and Corey Binion was an effective closer.
Then Mason Moore transferred to Rowan County from Paintsville, where he’d already established himself as a bona-fide ace. As a freshman, Moore went the distance in the Tigers’ first-round state tournament victory last season.
So the Vikings went from one of the top pitching staffs around in the here-and-now to a group with the potential to become the best staff in the 16th Region this decade.
“I said it earlier in the year, they literally have a pitching staff. It’s unheard of at the high-school level,” said Lewis County coach Sammy Holder, whose Lions were the victim of a five-inning perfect game authored by Moore on Saturday. “They go four or five deep. ... They just attack you. They throw lots of strikes, and they’re as deep as they come.”
The highest career ERA among the aforementioned quintet is Alderman’s 2.28. In ascending order: Hacker, 1.74; Binion, 2.07; Moore, 2.13; Gagliano, 2.22.
“We feel good any time we send those guys out on the mound, because we know we’ve got three or four deep that are gonna battle,” Vikings coach Scott Collins said. “Any time those guys are on the mound, I think the other players step their game up a little bit as well.”
Each starter of the group has turned in at least one mound gem thus far this spring. Hacker started the season off with a one-hitter and 11 strikeouts in a five-inning victory over Greenup County on March 18, and Moore assembled a perfect performance on Saturday, fanning six Lewis County hitters in his five-inning effort.
In between, Alderman has twice allowed two hits in five innings, in a victory over Rootstown (Ohio) in Myrtle Beach on March 28 and again in a run-rule complete game against Prestonsburg on Thursday. He struck out 11 Blackcats.
Gagliano showed Powell County the stop sign on Saturday, scattering three hits over five scoreless innings, with nine punchouts.
Hacker, a senior, is likely to warrant serious Mr. Baseball consideration. He has 305 strikeouts over 201 innings in his career and pitched well enough to win against Muhlenberg County in the first round of the state tournament in his sophomore season in a game the Vikings lost in extra innings.
Hacker watched and learned as Cam Planck plied his trade before graduating in 2016. That education with the New York Mets minor leaguer continues.
“Cam’s got a work ethic beyond anybody. AJ sees that,” Collins said. “They’ve seen what Cam was able to do, with the work ethic that he has. ... Cam and AJ were kinda inseparable during the winter months.”
So, who would be Rowan County’s competition for the role of top 16th Region pitching staff of the 2010s?
Ashland’s 2012 staff is the most recent in the region with two legitimate aces simultaneously. Logan Salow, who went on to pitch at the University of Kentucky and is now with the Dodgers’ Class A Advanced Rancho Cucamonga club, assumed the mantle of Tomcats No. 1 as a junior. He took that role from Sam Hunter, but not because the senior’s stuff diminished any. Hunter went on to pitch at Marshall.
Greenup County’s 2015-16 group warrants mention, too. Christian Wireman, Jaxon Keeton and Ethan Coldiron memorably combined to allow five hits and no runs in 18 innings in the 2015 region tournament. Keeton and Coldiron threw complete-game one-hitters in the region semifinal and final, respectively. Those pitchers didn’t blow hitters away so much as use guile and a sensational defense behind them.
Tristan Downing returned as a junior in 2016 from a year off the mound due to elbow trouble and further elevated that Musketeers staff, which returned intact in 2016 as Greenup County defended its region title.
Consider this Rowan County club capable of joining and maybe surpassing that elite company, if they collectively do what they can.
“I don’t know how good they’re gonna be,” Holder said, “but I think the sky’s the limit for them. I think they’ll continue to dominate in this region, and come postseason, it’s a scary team to draw.”
•Leaving Myrtle Beach — sunburns notwithstanding — is usually a bit of a downer. Count Haylie Haney among those probably not anxious to head home.
The Ashland senior spun a pair of no-hitters during the Cal Ripken Experience. She allowed no hits in a 2-0 loss to Frederick Douglass on Monday. Three days later, Haney came within one walk of perfection in a 12-0 five-inning whitewashing of Moniteau (Pennsylvania).
It was shades of Megan Hensley, the Kittens legend who threw multiple no-hitters in the same week on at least two occasions — in April 2013 and April ‘14.
In between Haney’s stellar outings, Mykayla Akers allowed just one base knock to George Rogers Clark in a 10-0 five-inning Ashland romp on Wednesday.
•Rowan County, for all its fanfare, didn’t make it through the second game of the year before sustaining its first in-region loss, falling at Ashland on March 19.
That might have been OK, though, said Collins.
“Going into the season, there was a lot of talk, and there’s a little bit of bull’s-eye on us,” he said. “But the 16th ... you can’t take any day for granted. Sometimes you take a loss and you learn from it, and it’s a good thing.”
•Lewis County went 1-1 in the Anchor Down Classic at Rowan County on Saturday, including a 10-0 five-inning loss to the host Vikings, but the Lions’ participation was more meaningful to Holder than just the result.
The event’s title refers to the motivational phrase instilled in Morehead by Keith Prater when he took over as Vikings coach for the 2016 season. Prater died of leukemia shortly after his second season in that role.
Holder played at Lewis County during Prater’s two-year tenure in charge in Vanceburg in 2012-13. He’s now the Lions’ first-year coach.
“You stepped into that third-base coach’s box, you just have a little bit more peace,” Holder said. “With coach Prater looking down on that, he was smiling. ... He’s always on my mind. It’d be nice to pick up the phone and call him sometimes, but don’t have that luxury. We miss the big guy, and it was a special night.”
•Not every team that traveled last week was bound for South Carolina or Florida. Lewis County’s softball team went to the Uncle Pete Noll Classic hosted by Bishop Brossart instead and picked up two wins in three games. The Lady Lions are 12-2 entering their first big week of 63rd District seeding of the season — at Greenup County on Tuesday and at Russell on Thursday.
•The KHSAA announced Monday it will compile and post more comprehensive statistics for baseball and softball, as it has long done for most other sports. Call that a win for sports media (for whom more information almost always makes our job easier) and for fans, and it may help in terms of college recruiting, too.
•Keep an eye out for the return of The Daily Independent’s Northeastern Kentucky Prep Baseball and Softball Media Polls in next Monday’s edition!
•The 16th Region All “A” Classic baseball and softball tournaments begin today. In quarterfinal baseball action, Raceland goes to Bath County in a rematch of last year’s small-school region final won by the Rams, Elliott County is at Rose Hill Christian and West Carter travels to Menifee County. Host Fairview drew a bye to the semifinals, which are Tuesday at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. in Central Park. The final is Thursday at 6.
•The 16th Region softball All “A” kicks off when Menifee County goes to Bath County and Raceland hosts Elliott County today. West Carter and Fairview drew byes to the semifinals, which are Tuesday beginning at 5:30 at Raceland. The final is Thursday at 6.
•Pikeville knocked off Paintsville, 7-3, in the final of the 15th Region softball All “A” on Friday.
•Pikeville’s baseball team followed suit, taking down Sheldon Clark, 7-3, on Friday night in the All “A” baseball region final. The Cardinals had eliminated Paintsville in the semifinals, 6-5, on Thursday.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.