The LaRue County Hawks removed a monkey from their back Monday afternoon, and now it resides with the Elizabethtown Panthers.
The Hawks knocked off the host Panthers, 3-1 for their first win in the 5th Region Baseball Tournament since 2008. They had lost their last three consecutive quarterfinal games.
LaRue County (28-9) jumped out to an early lead, which was important after past region failures.
“That was big to get a couple of runs early,” LaRue County senior Kyle Meredith said. “It was huge to get that momentum. We haven’t had much luck lately. But we got a lead and then just played superb defense.”
The loss was Elizabethtown’s second straight first round exit. Since 1987 when the region became comprised of its current members, Elizabethtown had never lost in the first round in the back-to-back region tournaments. It was just the fourth time during that span the Panthers lost in the first round.
“I told them to take this experience and learn from it,” Elizabethtown coach Don Pitts said. “This is two years we’ve lost in the first round and I told them that is not the standard to achieve by E’town baseball. But it wasn’t from a lack of effort.”
It was only the second time in 20 games the Panthers (14-23) lost to an 18th District team in the region tournament in the last 26 years. Both have come at the hands of the Hawks – the other in 2002 in the first round.
“This is a big win in the region,” LaRue County junior Cole Hughes said. “This gives us a lot of confidence because we haven’t won a game since I’ve been here and I think it was the first win for the seniors. That it came against a team like E’town builds our confidence.”
LaRue County played Adair County Tuesday in the region semifinals.
The Hawks struggled in last year’s10-2 first-round loss to Taylor County. No player had more troubles than Hughes, who started on the mound and didn’t make it to the third inning.
But Hughes (10-0) was in complete control on this day. He tossed five shutout innings, limiting the Panthers to two hits and three walks. He struck out three.
“This year I focused more on just throwing and keeping the ball down,” Hughes said. “When I got to the stretch last year, everything was up so I walked people. When I did throw a strike they hit it. This year I just had confidence in what I was throwing and my defense made the plays.”
Defense was the difference in the game. The Hawks were flawless in the field, turning two double plays and tracking down every flyball in the outfield. Meanwhile, Elizabethtown made three errors – one in each of the innings the Hawks scored.
“Both double plays were hard-hit balls,” Pitts said. “We hit the ball hard, but they made the plays. And they weren’t routine stuff. They just made the plays. You have to tip your hat to them.”
Another key was hitting with runners in scoring position, especially the first three innings. The Hawks were 3-for-6, while Elizabethtown was 0-for-6.
LaRue County struck in the first when Meredith singled, stole second and went to third on a throwing error. Senior Slade Owens followed with an RBI single to right to give the Hawks a 1-0 lead.
In the second, senior Wesley Kessinger reached on an error, advanced to second on Hughes’ sacrifice bunt and scored on senior Trevor Skaggs’ single to right to stretch the lead to 2-0.
“This game is built on momentum,” Owens said. “We got the momentum early. We have not had the best of luck, so to get a couple runs early was big for us.”
After leaving a runner stranded on second the first two innings, the Panthers had a golden opportunity in the third. Freshman Zeke Pinkham and junior Garrett Morgan walked and senior Tyler Brandenburg was hit by a pitch to load the bases. But Hughes induced a grounder to Meredith at shortstop for a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.
“That was a big play,” Meredith said. “It was hit right at me. I fielded it cleanly and got it to Jesse (Johnson). I was hoping he would be able to turn two and it worked out for us.”
Trailing 3-0, Elizabethtown finally showed some signs of life offensively in the seventh. Senior Brice Taylor doubled down the left-field line and senior Ryne Kauffeld reached on an infield single. After sophomore Jon Tarrence’s fielder’s choice, eighth-grader Hunter Sullivan drove in Taylor with an infield single. Owens struck out the next hitter before walking Pinkham to load the bases. But Owens induced a grounder to Meredith, who rifled a ball to first to end the game.
“Our pitchers did a good job,” LaRue County coach Chris Price said. “Cole worked the way he works. He threw a lot of pitches, but he’s a nibbler and he’s good at it. Boy, we did a good job defensively. Scoring early takes pressure off the pitcher and it took a lot of pressure off our kids.”