Bull Dogs face tough task in 4A No. 1 Trojans

Columbus North’s Luke Harmon stands in the on-deck circle against Whiteland in the sectional championship at East Central, Monday, May 29, 2023.

Paige Grider | For The Republic

When Mike Bodart took over as Columbus North baseball coach last summer, he felt he had the tools to win a sectional title in his first year.

The Bull Dogs gave Bodart that title on Monday when they staged a late rally to defeat Whiteland 7-2 in the East Central Sectional final. North will play Class 4A No. 1 Center Grove in the Jasper Regional at 3 p.m. Saturday at Ruxer Field.

“Obviously, that was a goal that we felt was very attainable,” Bodart said. “With what we had this season, I knew that was definitely something that we could do. It’s a good reward. I felt really good about our abilities, and it came together at the right time. We’re going to go down to Jasper and play in a beautiful park and try to upset the No. 1 team in the state.”

That will be easier said than done. The Trojans are 26-3 and coming off a 16-0 win against Greenwood in Monday’s Mooresville Sectional final.

Center Grove is led by senior shortstop Drew Culbertson, who bats .469 with eight home runs and 33 RBIs, and senior pitcher Jacob Murphy, who is 7-1 with a 1.01 ERA. Culbertson, a Missouri recruit, is one of six Trojans headed to Division I programs.

“Their No. 1 pitcher, who I assume we’ll see, is a hard thrower,” Bodart said. “They come out at the plate and try to swing out of their shoes. We’re going to try to keep them off-balance and take advantage of some of their miscues.”

That’s what the Bull Dogs did against Whiteland on Monday. The Warriors led 2-0 before committing three consecutive errors to begin the sixth. That led to a six-run inning for North.

The Bull Dogs (17-10) lost to Center Grove 8-2 early in the season, but took 4A No. 2 Noblesville to extra innings, and then late in the regular season, beat two other Hamilton County schools in Westfield and Fishers.

“We played a pretty good schedule with a lot of those big schools,” Bodart said. “We competed in most of those games and finally got a win against Westfield and then against Fishers. The message I was trying to send to the kids was, ‘Believe that we can play with these guys.’ That’s what we’ve been saying all year long. The ones that we lost were kind of self-inflicted, and we’re working to correct those. Our opponents are capable of making those mistakes as well, so we have to force them to make mistakes and take advantage of it.”

North has been led on the mound and at the plate by senior Luke Harmon. Harmon is 4-2 with a 2.21 ERA and is batting a team-leading .373.

Junior Connor Hensley, who threw a five-hitter in the sectional final, is 3-1 with a 3.40 ERA. Junior Blake Osbourne is 3-2 with a 1.27 ERA.

“We have a 1 and a 1A basically,” Bodart said. “We feel like both of those are capable of winning any game. Then, the way Blake is really starting to come along has been phenomenal. So we feel real comfortable with anybody that we’re going to put out there.”

Hensley, who plays third base when not pitching, is the Bull Dogs’ second-leading hitter at .337 and leads the team with 20 RBIs. Other top hitters are junior first baseman Zach McLean (.297, three HR, 15 RBIs), junior second baseman Dillon James (.296, three HR, 18 RBIs), left fielder Osbourne (.295, 11 RBIs) and senior center fielder Tyler Blythe (.253, 10 RBIs).

“We thought going into the season that pitching was going to be our strong suit, and it has been, and hitting is going to be where we needed to make it up,” Bodart said. “We’re trying to put the ball in play. Our message is, let’s get that stuff done and taken care of and then go out and play defense. We’re comfortable where we are.”

While Center Grove has been ranked No. 1 in the state coaches poll for most of the season, North has been unable to crack the top 10 and isn’t listed as receiving votes. That may serve as a motivating factor for the Bull Dogs.

“I think our guys are starting to see that we’re not getting the notice from around the state, which is fine,” Bodart said. “It’s a good spot to be in. Our guys have come along, and they’ve grown a ton this season. We started showing some really good progress after the first two or three weeks of the season and have showed an upward trajectory.”