I recently got a second chance to cover “one big final event,” and I thank the Creston baseball team for that.
I had already told many members of the 2016 Creston/O-M girls tennis team that I had a blast covering their state runner-up finish in team tennis in May of last year, just as I was entering semi-retirement.
Well, I’m now nearing the end of a two-month stint as a nightly “fill-in” on the CNA’s sports staff until they can do some staff shuffling. I will soon go back to part-time status and focus mostly on feature stories.
During these last few weeks I got to see the 2017 Creston baseball team at its best, winning a game in the district tournament and darned near taking a district championship in a riveting 6-5 loss to Denison-Schleswig in nine innings on July 17.
It has to be one of the best Creston baseball games I’ve covered, and I got to be on the beat back in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Panthers were perennial conference champions and ranked statewide. The tense nature of every at-bat, and watching pitchers continually battle out of jams, reminded me of the compelling 2007 substate victory over Harlan.
Creston got an early lead, then it was tied for three innings, and in the top of the ninth the Monarchs took a 6-3 lead.
The top of the lineup was up for the Panthers, which included the three seniors. They did not want it to end like that. All night long, you could just see the intensity in the eyes of Cody Crawford, Brenden McDowell and Kadon Hulett.
McDowell led off that ninth inning with a single.
Right after Jaden Driskell also hit a single, Hulett came up to bat. What happened next was truly remarkable.
Basically, coach Steve Birchard challenged him to hit one out of the park and tie the game. Sure, that’s the dream outcome, but how often does it happen in real life in a pressure situation like that?
Hulett is a strong young man who will soon begin his football career at Northwest Missouri State. So, a big blast wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
In that clutch moment, with the team’s fate and the end of his career on the line, Hulett sent a towering drive to straightaway center field. When it was hit, I heard Panther supporters near me shout excitedly, “IT’S GONE!”
We all thought for a moment that it was. But Crawford, running toward second base, related to me later that the ball struck the middle numeral in a vertical 330 sign on the outfield fence, depicting the distance from home plate. It hit the second 3, just a couple of feet shy of clearing the fence in the deepest part of that ballpark and tying the game.
Instead, it was a double and two runs scored, leaving the final score 6-5 as the Panthers were unable to garner one more hit.
Big plays were made that night by both teams. (When’s the last time you saw a high school game with three double plays?)
Assistant coach Brandon Phipps had played with these seniors when they were freshmen and he was a senior. However, there were 10 in that class on the team then, instead of just three.
That was mentioned by Hulett afterward in one of the most impassioned speeches I’ve ever seen a player give to his peers after a season-ending loss. I was transfixed. A lot of the kids were in tears.
Hulett told them they had all achieved something special together — playing really good baseball in a district championship game, when nobody had given them such a chance early in an up-and-down season that ended at 14-20. The older veterans who were left had taken in these younger players and made them understand how to compete hard and do things the right way.
He told them they have a bright future, because they showed this summer that they could improve. And, he thanked them for their efforts in making his final high school season one that was memorable and enjoyable.
Phipps was enjoying it, as well. He and then freshman Chase Shiltz were the leading pitchers on that 2014 Panther team. Another senior leader on that team, Trevor Luther, was in attendance that night. He’s also involved in coaching, at Orient-Macksburg.
“Embrace the moment,” Phipps said at one point, when a Panther player said he was nervous. “Remember, that’s what I texted you last night. Look for a moment. Soak it in.”
There were a lot of great moments in that game. Even though I didn’t get home until midnight, got done writing at home at 2:30 a.m. and finished in the office with Kaleb Carter at 4:30 a.m., it was all worth it.
I was reminded why I loved this business for so many years. Those guys left their sweat, tears and maybe even a little blood on that Glenwood baseball field. Everyone left thinking, “Now THAT was a great game.”
Contact the writer: