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PREP BASEBALL: Panthers eager to get back to state tourney (6/4)

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By Chuck Jones

LEXINGTON — Heartbroken and downtrodden following a 6-5 loss to North Bullitt in the Rawlings/KHSAA State Baseball Tournament on Tuesday, the Elizabethtown Panthers were able to find a silver lining in what seemed like a sky full of dark clouds.

And the place they found it was from the playbook of their 17th District nemesis Central Hardin.

This was Elizabethtown’s first state tournament appearance since the KHSAA went to the current format in 2010 to make all 16 region winners a part of the field. This wasn’t the result the Panthers had hoped or dreamed about, but they can learn a lesson from their district brethren.

Central Hardin lost in the first round of the 2010 state tournament, but the Bruins came back the next season to win the state championship.

“Maybe we’ll get that lucky,” Elizabethtown sophomore Hunter Sullivan said. “This was a great experience and maybe we won’t have as much nerves if we get back here.”

Last offseason, the Panthers were motivated by a loss in the 17th District semifinals and it spurred them to get to the state tournament. This loss could serve a similar purpose.

“It’s going to motivate us a lot,” Elizabethtown junior Zeke Pinkham said. “Central Hardin lost in the first round to Greenup County (in 2010) and they were motivated to get back and win it all. We’re in the same situation. We need to work hard and stay focused. We need to be hungry like that team. They ran the district, ran the region and took care of business once they got back here. We need to take care of business next year.”

The odds are in Elizabethtown’s favor, considering the talent it returns from a 28-8 squad which won the 17th District and 5th Region tournaments.

The Panthers only graduate two starters in the field — first baseman Jon Tarrence and second baseman Connor Kauffeld — and they will lose designated hitter Preston Patterson to graduation as well. Patterson batted .382 with 35 RBIs, which was the second most on the team. Tarrence hit .309 and Kauffeld .281.

Elizabethtown has its top four pitchers returning, including its ace in Sullivan, who went 12-1 with the only loss coming Tuesday. He struck 88 in 67 innings and allowed just four earned runs the entire season. Junior Cody Bridges, who started Tuesday’s game, was 3-2 with a 1.94 ERA. Junior Conner Kindred went 5-1, including a win in the region tournament, while sophomore Jack Wilson was 4-0. Junior Austin Freyberger threw only 16 innings this season and could factor into next year’s rotation.

The Panthers return six of their top eight hitters, including their top four in Pinkham (.434), Bridges (.421), Freyberger (.404) and Sullivan (.395). Also back are sophomores Peyton Payne (.305) and Jack Wilson (.304).

The defense should be a strength with Pinkham back behind the plate, Sullivan at shortstop, Wilson at third, Bridges in center, Payne in left and Freyberger in right. Kindred will also see time in left or at shortstop depending on who is on the mound.

“I think it’s huge just getting here,” Freyberger said. “We should be experienced in a lot of areas on the field next season, so that’s going to help us a lot. I think it’s a cool thing how we’ve succeeded this season and it should only help us next year.”

What they Panthers haven’t done lately, though, is win back-to-back region titles. The last time Elizabethtown accomplished the feat was when it won three straight from 1998-2000.

“When you look at our roster, we have a lot of guys returning,” Eliza-bethtown coach Don Pitts said. “I don’t know if it’s complacency, but we haven’t won back-to-back regions. We can’t take it for granted we’ll be back here, because the teams in our district and region are too tough. We have to have that same attitude and we still have to be hungry next year.”

Pinkham said that won’t be a problem.

“The odds are good for us, but nothing is a guarantee,” Pinkham said. “We have to stay focused and work even harder next year. We want to get back here and we want to be considered a state contender next year. The only way to do that is to get better and that’s what we need to do, so the next time we come here we can do our best to take care of business.”

The ray of hope is they know this loss isn’t the end, but possibly the beginning. In the last three years under the current format, two champions — Central Hardin and Louisville Pleasure Ridge Park last year — lost in the first round the previous year.

“We’re optimistic about coming up here again,” Bridges said. “It’s been mostly good for us to be able to get this experience. This isn’t much different than playing anywhere else. The biggest difference is the nerves and those should be settled down now that we have experience here. I know I’m hoping we get a redo and we can try again next year.”

Chuck Jones can be reached at 270-505-1759 or cjones@thenewsenterprise.com.