It was worth the wait.
After years of searching for their breakthrough high school season, surviving a three-day regional marathon seemed like the final sprint. When senior Jake Blackmer induced a two-out ground ball to the left side, the dugout held their breath in expectation. Junior Miles Frost took the high hop cleanly, then fired over to sophomore first baseman Samson Lein for the out – and the real sprint began.
The Panthers burst out of the dugout and converged onto the infield grass for a celebration that was much longer than three days in the making.
On Monday afternoon, the Panthers (21-4) turned around a one-run deficit on The Classical Academy (12-9) in the highly-anticipated conclusion to their rain-delayed championship game, scoring a run in the fourth to tie the game, then adding a pair of runs in the fifth before holding on for a 7-6 victory and the Region five title.
Senior Jake Blackmer fired three sharp innings on the mound to finish the work that Frost had started the day before, while a whole cast of Panthers featured in the come-from-behind effort.
“I knew what had to be done,” said Blackmer of his big relief appearance for the Panthers, “it was a long night of stress, but I woke up excited and ready.”
Starting the day trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the fourth, senior Lyle Carver began the rally with a battle at the plate, working from behind 0-2 to draw a walk. Then a wild pickoff attempt sent Carver flying to third base, before Lein punched a ball up the middle for a game-tying RBI.
“Getting back even was our goal, because we knew once we got it tied, we would have a good chance to win,” said head coach Tim Passell, “especially with Jake on the mound today, we know he’s been clutch for us all year, whether at the plate or on the mound – and he was focused right from the start today.”
After a quick top of the fifth inning for Blackmer, the Panther bats got back to work, albeit requiring little contact with the pitches. Blackmer was hit by a pitch when facing a two-strike count to open the home half of the fifth, followed by an infield hit from freshman Darren Daves to put the Panthers in business. Senior Braden Hallman was hit by a pitch as well, and the home team had the bases loaded with no outs.
Frost stepped to the plate, and patiently drew a walk to force in the go-ahead run, before freshman Parker Conrad – making his first ever varsity plate appearance – drove a ball to center field with plenty of distance to work as a sacrifice fly to drive in Daves, putting the Panthers up 7-5.
“Our offense has been all about putting the ball in play, getting on base, and putting pressure on them to make mistakes,” added Blackmer of his team’s attitude at the plate, “and it comes from everyone on the team, from the seniors to the freshmen – we’re all pushing each other because we all know how much this means.”
From there, Blackmer leaned on a fastball that Titan hitters struggled to handle – and in spite of giving up a pair of back-to-back hits that brought TCA back within a run – Blackmer settled the team with ground outs to limit any further damage.
After striking out Titan slugger senior Vinny Miller to open the seventh, Blackmer forced the visitors into consecutive weak grounders to Frost, sending the Panthers to their celebratory pileup, and on to Greeley and the 3A state tournament.
The rally came after M-CHS and TCA traded big innings against one another right on Saturday afternoon, right before the clouds rolled in and paused action at McAndrew Field for the second straight day, with M-CHS having to sleep on a 5-4 deficit.
From this beginning, things looked bright, as M-CHS opened the scoring in the bottom of the first after starter Frost produced a 1-2-3 inning to begin the game.
Blackmer drilled a double into the right-center field gap to score classmate Evan LaMunyon, who had walked with one out.
Then, the defense flashed the leather in the second inning, as sophomore left fielder Seth Oakes tracked a long fly ball to the wall, and making a great grab. After the Titans put together consecutive singles, Frost extinguished the threat by snagging a popped-up bunt attempt, then doubling off the runner at second for a double play.
Holding their 1-0 lead into the third, TCA scratched out a pair of base runners to generate a threat with two outs in the inning. From there, four consecutive fly balls all found their way into holes, scoring five Titans and giving the visitors a 5-1 lead.
M-CHS generated an immediate response, as freshman Cory Carver led off the bottom of the third with a single, before moving over on a groundout and steal, then scoring on a wild pitch to cut into the deficit. Blackmer followed with a single, then Daves drew a walk, setting up Hallman with a chance to drive in runs.
The senior came through with an infield hit, followed by a pair of Titan throwing errors that led to two more Panther runs and a 5-4 score line – giving M-CHS some momentum and setting up the dramatic three-inning rally on Monday.
For the seniors, the chance to put together an incredible season seemed like a fitting conclusion to all the hard work over the past decade.
“When we talked with our seniors at the very first practices this season, we talked about our goals,” said Passell, “and along with winning league – which we did – we set our sights on winning regional, and now we’re going to make waves at state. These guys have been battle-tested all season long, and working with our great coaching staff, they’ve earned everything that they’ve gotten this year.”
The Panthers advanced to the regional final after topping Gunnison 7-4 in another contest that saw a lengthy stoppage due to rain.
“We had so many community members, fathers of players out here helping get this field ready, and the whole town come behind this team – I can’t say enough thank-you’s to the everyone for making this possible,” added Passell of the crowd support and work put in through the three days to make McAndrew Field playable.
M-CHS advances to Greeley to play in the state tournament, just one day after many of the Panthers will walk across the stage for M-CHS graduation. State tournament action will pit the Panthers against another team of Titans – No. 4 Coal Ridge (25-0) – on Friday, May 26, at 11:30 a.m. at University High School. The winner of that contest will advance in the winner’s bracket of the double-elimination tournament to a 2 p.m. contest (also at University High School) against the winner of No. 1 Eaton (25-0) and regional surprise No. 25 Peak to Peak (12-13).
“It means the world to the seniors and everyone else on this team,” said Blackmer, “we’ve never felt anything this emotional – I can’t even really put into words how great this is.”