They say pressure makes diamonds, and Rowan County earned region title rings on Tuesday night in the 16th Region Tournament baseball championship game.
That was the Vikings’ third region final in as many years. This time was different than the last two: in 2017, Rowan County filled a vacuum created by Raceland’s shocking elimination of region favorite Greenup County in the 63rd District Tournament semifinals, and last spring, the Vikings dropped a showdown with the Musketeers, who most would have picked on paper.
Not so this year. Largely due to a historically strong crop of pitching, Rowan County has been pegged as the region’s team to beat ever since Greenup County sent nine players across the stage at last year’s graduation.
Instead of buckling under the weight of great expectations, internal and external, the Vikings have delivered on their promise and then some.
“I feel like we obviously have taken pretty good control of it,” Rowan County senior ace AJ Hacker said. “I don’t even know how many games in a row (the current winning streak) was. It may have been 30.”
It is indeed 30, enabling Rowan County to carry the state’s longest active winning streak into semi-state play on Saturday against Lawrence County. The Vikings (38-3) are a win away from tying the 16th Region’s single-season record for victories established by Greenup County in 2016.
That doesn’t mean the sterling stretch hasn’t included some worrisome moments, most recently when Ashland jumped out on the Vikings, 1-0, in the region final on Tuesday and remained tied 2-2 through two and a half innings.
Not only did that end Rowan County’s state-record shutout streak at seven, it imperiled the Vikings early in an elimination game.
“It sure made me a nervous wreck, I can tell you that,” Rowan County coach Scott Collins said. “I did kinda see heads dragging a little bit, so I had to have a little pep talk to get ’em going, and they responded.”
That would sound familiar to Greg Logan, who has built Greenup County into perennially one of the top teams in the region, aside from a youthful hiccup this season.
The Musketeers have borne the weight of prohibitive region favorite status a handful of times in recent years. Sometimes, it’s worked out great.
Greenup County lost only twice in 2016. The year before that, the Musketeers assembled a 16-game winning streak that didn’t end until the state semifinals. And in 2018, Greenup County delivered a 37-6 season, culminating in its third region title in four campaigns.
Then there’s the other year during that span — the Musketeers’ aforementioned bowing out at the hands of the Rams despite a 27-8 mark in 2017. Logan also mentioned 30-win Greenup County’s region semifinal setback to East Carter in 2009.
Those losses left scars, and they helped inform how Logan handled coaching his highly touted team last year.
“I think you instill that mentality that the underdog has everything to gain,” Logan said. “I’ve always said, they’re here to destroy not your season, not your game; they’re here to destroy your career. Because really, nobody really knows how many Gage (Hughes) won or (Kyle) Gammon won or how many Greenup County won. They do know the games that they didn’t win that they were supposed to win.”
That mentality can go too far, too, though, Logan said. He said coaches balance that by knowing their team’s mental makeup.
“There’s a fine line there that you really have to drive home, and you can’t wear it out because you let them get it too much in their head and they start gasping for wind the first pitch, first inning,” Logan said. “You just gotta let them play loose and remind them, we’ve done this.”
Rowan County has done it all year, too, enough so that an early deficit didn’t engender panic.
Tomcats coach David Greene figured Ashland needed to threaten early Tuesday to ensure the game remained competitive. His logic was sound, but the Tomcats’ lead had the opposite effect: it jolted Rowan County into action, and that 1-0 edge proved to be the only one Ashland had.
“You want to score early, but you’re also poking the bear,” said Greene, laughing. “Regional finals, you don’t know how much nerves and jitters go into it early. I think (Rowan County) did loosen up after that, and they played their game. And they play it really well.”
After that 2-2 tie, Rowan County scored the next 10 runs to win the region by the run rule.
“It refocused our minds,” Hacker said. “We came right back and hit the ball.”
It was another example of the Vikings facing down an opponent trying to make its name by ruining Rowan County’s joyride.
On paper, it would appear the Vikings obliterated their three region tournament opponents — Rowan County topped East Carter, Boyd County and Ashland by a combined 30-2.
But the quarterfinal round against the Raiders was scoreless through three innings, and the Vikings led the Lions just 1-0 through six frames.
In each case, a crooked number put up by the most prolific offense in region history pushed Rowan County clear. The Vikings scored eight runs in the fourth inning against East Carter, seven in the seventh versus Boyd County and sixth in the fifth to put Ashland away.
Rowan County has scored 396 runs, which is by far the most in a season in reported 16th Region lore. No other region team is on the KHSAA record list, which starts at 325 runs and climbs upward.
Now, if Collins has anything to say about it, it’ll be business as usual ahead of another big game on Saturday in Rowan County’s hometown. The Vikings and Bulldogs will face off at Morehead State for a trip to Lexington and the state quarterfinals.
“We’re gonna celebrate tonight,” Collins said after the region final, “and (Wednesday), when we go back to work, it’s about Saturday’s game. It may linger on a little bit (Wednesday), I’m not gonna lie, but after tonight, we’ll get focused and be ready for the 15th (Region champion) on Saturday.”
In other words, the same workmanlike approach that has helped the Vikings handle the target all year.
Reach ZACK KLEMME at email@example.com or (606) 326-2658. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.