By Corey Stolzenbach
For The Republic
JASPER — Seven years in the making, 14 seniors, and Center Grove isn’t done yet.
The Class 4A No. 1 Trojans (27-3) captured the regional hardware on Saturday with a 4-2 win against Columbus North in the Jasper regional championship at Ruxer Field. They found themselves tied, 1-1, with the Bulldogs (17-11) after the first inning, but grabbed the lead for good in the top of the third and added a run in both the fourth and sixth innings.
“Hats off to Columbus North — they battled, they made it hard on us all the way to the last out,” Trojans coach Keith Hatfield said. “I’m so proud of our guys, though – they’ve worked so long for this and it’s fun to get to watch them play.”
Having 14 seniors on the team helped in the first regional plaque for the Trojans since 2016 — with some of the seniors having big days.
“Not only 14 seniors, but they’ve been playing together forever,” Hatfield said. “They’re a tight group and it’s a big, big group, no doubt, but they’ve done a great job of bringing the younger guys up.”
One of those younger guys is Gannon Grant, a freshman, who scored an insurance run in the top of the fourth off a double play groundout when the Trojans loaded the bases with nobody out. Grant also turned and got the last out off a big play in the bottom of the fourth in what was a big out, as the Bull Dogs left a runner at third — and that ball falling in would’ve made it a one-run game at 3-2.
“He hasn’t even been with us all year. He was a midseason call up,” Hatfield said of Grant. “Kobe Cherry is another freshman at first base. He’s been with us all year, and they’ve really just done a great job of helping those guys, making them feel comfortable so that they can perform like they did today.”
But Hatfield also got a lot of mileage out of his seniors on the mound. Jacob Murphy got the win, going six innings for the Trojans, and while he still had some pitches before he got to the limit, Hatfield instead sent Caden Cornett out in the seventh to get the save – which he did.
“(Murphy) had some long innings,” he said. “And he battled and battled – that was not a typical Jacob outing, normally he cruises. So, to see him battle like that, I went to him before the seventh inning and said, ‘How do you feel?’ And he just said, ‘I’m done.’
“And I said, ‘I’m so proud of you, way to battle today,’” Hatfield continued. “And when you have somebody like Caden in the bullpen, that’s an easy decision to make.”
Center Grove is scheduled to play Brownsburg in its first semistate game on Saturday, with locations to be determined on Sunday.
For North, the emotional goodbyes could be felt with players and coaches all hugging one another, as the unranked Bull Dogs saw their season come to an end in Mike Bodart’s first season as coach.
Bodart himself was emotional, even having to walk around and compose himself while taking questions.
“It was my first year, and they just made it so easy,” he said.
Bodart noted the Bull Dogs “just wanted to be successful,” and that they wanted somebody to lead them, which was all he did.
The coaching staff preached to North to be good people, for each player to care for their teammates — hence the emotion — as they bought into that.
And yet, the Bull Dogs (17-11) may never have led, but they also minimized — never allowing more than one run in an inning on Saturday, which their coach attributed to their heart.
“We’ve got heart and grit, and this team showed that all year long,” Bodart said. “And we talked about believing when we started playing some of the big schools, ranked schools, and we’ve got one of the toughest schedules in Indiana. And they just kept fighting and winning some games and coming in and beating Westfield and then one-hitting Fishers.”
Senior pitcher Luke Harmon took the loss for North, and Harmon had some challenges with command and location, especially early. The Trojans scored their first run in the top of the first without registering a hit, and stayed out in front for good when Harmon drilled Center Grove senior Drew Culbertson to lead off the top of the third. Culbertson later came around to score when Evan Zapp singled him in.
“He didn’t have his best stuff tonight,” Bodart said of Harmon. “But he still kept hitting his spots and the situations that we had to have him in and our defense made a few plays. And we minimized our errors, and we had one that was late in the game, which I don’t think actually (ended) up hurting us.”
Harmon allowed eight hits in 5 1/3 innings. Ryan Rayburn gave up two hits in 1 2/3 scoreless innings.
For Harmon and fellow seniors Tyler Blythe, Ely Lucas, Trenton McCain and Kyler Hashman, this was it. Bodart made sure to thank them plenty, but he also credited them for making it easy for him.
He noted this team “relaid the foundation” after a tough 2022 season, and this team put their stamp on the program for the future.
“We’re asking (the returners next year) for them to continue building on what we’ve done,” Bodart said. “We want to be known as (an) extremely competitive high school baseball team in Indiana, and we also want to make sure that we expect them to be good members of society and they’re just good kids, and they go to school and they get good grades and they become excellent leaders.
“And we’re just passing the torch on, and we have the next set of leaders in the program,” he continued. “And we’ve got some sophomores-to-be that we expect to start playing, and we expect these seniors now, that are going to be seniors, to come in and continue to be those role models.”