HC Wildcats' season comes to an end

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By Tommie Kendall

Sports editor

In the Wildcats’ quest to become the first baseball team from Henry County High School to win the 8th Region tournament, their storybook run came to an end in the finals last Thursday night. With a tough Anderson County squad standing in the way, Henry was unable to dig out of an early deficit and fell to the Bearcats, 11-3.

The Wildcats ended the year winning eight of their final 10 games, including wins over both Owen County (6-1) and Gallatin County (9-1) to claim their first district title since 1998, followed by victories over Shelby County (6-5) and Oldham County (6-4) last Monday and Tuesday to reach the regional finals.

But Anderson went in front 5-0 after its first-inning bat, tallied 17 hits during the contest, never trailed and moved on to the KHSAA State Baseball Tournament — a tournament Henry looked destined to reach during its late-season run. Instead, the Wildcats ended their season at 20-8, and said goodbye to six seniors — Jordan Bryant, Tyler Cox, Nolan DeBurger, Joey Pollard, Ben Roberts and Ross Williams — who have led the Cats all season, left the team with plenty of feel-good moments and paved the way for future HCHS baseball teams.

“We had the opportunity to do something special, and just came up a little short,” said Henry’s first-year head coach Austin Hunsaker, who inherited a talented program from Mike Thibodeaux. “Obviously, we’re disappointed that we didn’t win the region, but what we accomplished for Henry County baseball means a lot right now.

“Our players came together this season and showed a lot of maturity. And hopefully, they got the ball rolling for future teams,” Hunsaker added.

The farthest Henry had ever advanced in post-season action was to the regional finals, which the Wildcats duplicated this season. The 1963 squad, led by pitching standout Frank Brent, advanced to the championship game of the Lexington Regional Tournament — one of only four regions at the time. It was just the second season the Wildcats had a baseball team, but they had to wait 45 years to get back to the same platform.

To go along with their close encounter of reaching the state tournament, the Cats sweep all three district tournaments — freshmen, junior varsity and varsity. It came in a year when Hunsaker stepped up from the assistant to the head man after the sudden and unexpected departure of Thibodeaux, and while the Cats also had to juggle their lineup during a season full of ups and downs.

“What a lot of people forget is we’re still dealing with kids, and they had to overcome a lot of things this season,” Hunsaker said. “You can’t complain with the accomplishments this team had. I’m very, very proud of them, and it was a fun year to be a part of.”

Henry 6, Shelby 5: In the opening round of the 8th Region tournament last Monday night, the host Henry County squad looked to be in trouble. Playing against Shelby County — the winner of the previous two regional tournaments and last year’s state runners-up — Henry was behind 4-0 after two innings.

But the Wildcats came alive in the bottom of the third inning to pull within one run, 4-3, finally took the lead in the bottom of the fifth, and held off Shelby for the slim 6-5 win.

The biggest play came during the bottom of the third when Ross Williams hit a two-out, two-strike hanging curve ball to the outfield for a two-RBI double to spark the Henry comeback.

“It was a very big hit for us — if we didn’t get it, we wouldn’t have won the game,” Hunsaker said. “Our kids never gave up and played as hard as they could until the end. Shelby has a good team, and that was a big win for our seniors.”

Shelby scored two runs in the first inning, one in the second and one in the third to go ahead 4-0. Anthony Palmer then came in for Tyler Cox on the pitcher’s mound, which might have led to the turnaround.

“I think our players were a little nervous early on in the game, and it showed,” Hunsaker said. “But once I brought Palmer in, he brought our nerves down a little because he’s so tough and it shows. It carried over to the other players on our team.”

During the bottom of the third, when Henry started the rally, Williams came through in the high-stakes situation with the big shot. He was later scored on Joey Pollard’s RBI single to make it a one-run game.

During the bottom of the fourth, after Shelby went ahead 5-3, Henry scored one run when Cox hit a single and scored on Ben Roberts’ hit. The Wildcats eventually scored the tying and go-ahead run in the bottom of the fifth. Pollard and Jordan Bryant both crossed home plate to give the Cats the lead for good.

“We played a solid game,” Hunsaker said afterwards. “It was a big challenge for us. Shelby is always one of the top teams in the entire region, so to take them down a very good high school program was a big win.”

Shelby, who was the 30th District runners-up, advanced all the way to the state finals last spring, when the Rockets lost to Paul Dunbar (10-1).

Henry 6, Oldham 4: Although it almost did, an hour rain delay couldn’t stop the Wildcats from advancing past Oldham County in the 8th Region semifinals last Tuesday night as the host Wildcats came away with a 6-4 win.

Henry was comfortably in front 5-0 during the fifth inning when rain forced the game to be delayed for more than an hour. After the teams took the the field again, Oldham rallied to pull within one run, 5-4, before Henry held off the Colonels down the stretch for the two-run win, which sealed the Wildcats a spot in the finals two nights later.

“It was a strange game,” Hunsaker said. “I think the delay definitely slowed down our momentum. Anytime you are in control of a game, you don’t want anything to happen that slows it down.”

Joey Pollard and Steven Tillett both scored during the second inning, while Tommy Wilson, Ross Williams and Pollard each scored during the third to put Henry ahead 5-0. Shortly after the delay, Oldham scored all four of its runs in the fifth to close the gap to just one.

Henry scored its only post-delay run during the sixth when the bases were loaded and Pollard was hit by a pitch to score Ben Roberts.

“I have to give Oldham credit,” Hunsaker said. “They fought back and got back into the game. I think one of the things our players learned by playing this far in the tournament is it’s not over until that last out in the seventh inning. Teams are going to play hard until the end — that’s how these high-stakes games are.”

For Henry, Tyler Cox pitched the entire game, while the Wildcats out-hit Oldham 6-5.

Anderson 11, Henry 3: In what turned into Henry’s final game of the season, Anderson County put on a hitting display in the 8th Region finals to go ahead early and come away with a convincing 11-3 victory.

Henry’s late-season spark fizzled out as the Bearcats connected for 17 hits and crossed home plate 11 times in the contest. Anderson used five hits during a big first inning to go ahead 5-0.

“They hit the ball very well,” Hunsaker said. “I had scouted them a few times before, and it just seemed like they were all over it this time out.”

Anthony Palmer started for Henry on the pitcher’s mound, while Ross Williams came in during the top of the third inning. Tyler Cox — Henry’s No. 2 option, or “1B option” as Hunsaker says — pitched against Oldham so couldn’t throw this game.

“We went into that game a little light on pitching,” Hunsaker said. “Palmer had a great year, but didn’t have the pop he usually has. Anderson has some talented players on their team and we knew they were capable of it. It just hurts that their breakout game came against us.”

Playing on the comforts of their home field, the Wildcats could do little to slow down the charging Bearcats to start the game. Anderson rolled off hit after hit, which accumulated to Henry’s early deficit and, ultimately, eight-run loss. It was only the second time Henry allowed a team to reach double digits in scoring this season.

While Anderson was having its way at the plate, the Wildcats were getting some solid hits, too. Henry finished with eight hits from six players, including two from Taylor Boone and Joey Pollard, along with one from Ben Roberts, Tommy Wilson, Jordan Bryant and Cox.

Meanwhile, Anderson’s hits seemed to rattle the Wildcats in a rocky game.

“At the same time that they got some good hits, we had some mistakes,” Hunsaker said of his team’s errors in both the outfield and infield. “We didn’t help ourselves. By the time we started to correct it, it was a bit too late.”

After Anderson scored five runs in the top of the first inning, Henry scored two in the bottom. Palmer was hit by a pitch, Taylor Boone’s hit down the third-base line moved Palmer to third base, and Roberts’ hit scored him. Wilson then smacked a double to score Boone.

The Wildcats scored their third and final run during the bottom of the fourth inning. Pollard hit a one-out single to the outfield, advanced to second base on a passed ball and was scored when Cox connected for a single.

For Henry, Williams, Palmer and Cox were named to the All-Region Team for their play during the three games.

E-mail us about this story at sports@hclocal.com.