Josh Wyatt has already issued a challenge to the PikeView baseball team for the 2015 season.
Moments after PikeView’s heartbreaking 2-1 loss in the Region III championship game on Wednesday to Independence, Wyatt gave a proclamation that won’t be forgotten, at least by me, and those Panthers who return.
“I promise you next year we will take that next step,” Wyatt said.
That would be a Region III title, and a berth in the Class AA state tournament.
For the second straight season, it was Independence that dashed those hopes for PikeView. The Patriots also won by a run last May, winning 4-3 on an infield chopper in the eighth inning of a rain-delayed game that took two days to compete.
“I really think if we played each other 10 or 15 times, we are probably going to come out about .500 against each other,” Independence head coach Scott Cuthbert said. “We are real similar type teams.
“It could have gone any way tonight.”
Independence won on the final hit in 2013, and finished off the Panthers with an equally dramatic defensive play a year later.
PikeView, which trailed 2-1 in the seventh, had runners on second and third with two outs and Ben Boggess hit what appeared to be a harmless fly ball to short left field.
It was far from a routine play.
Tanner Muovich hesitated just long enough to give Wyatt hope while standing near third base. Cuthbert originally thought it would be no problem, but then couldn’t believe how far any fielders were from the ball.
As the ball reached its climax and fell toward the ground, the large contingent of fans on both sides rose to their feet, knowing the game was in the balance.
All this while both PikeView runners crossed the plate.
Miss the ball, and the Panthers win. Catch it, and the Patriots prevail.
Independence starting pitcher Andrue Hughart, who had been relieved three batters earlier by Brad Huffman, was later relieved that Muovich didn’t take his advice, as he kept running and dived in time to make the play.
“It is amazing, I was just telling them, don’t dive, try to save the run, the first run didn’t count, but the second one really mattered,” Hughart said. “He came up with a heck of a play and saved us.”
Big time. While the Panthers’ hopes were dashed once again, the Patriots will return to Charleston, having faced their own heartbreak in last year’s Class AA state semifinals.
Independence knows heartbreak too. Eventual state champion Herbert Hoover hit a walkoff grand slam to send shell-shocked Independence back home a day early last season.
They’re back, and hoping for better luck this time.
“It has been our goal forever, even when we were down in little league, we have dreamed about this day,” said Hughart, on returning for another chance at state glory. “We have been playing together since we were so young, but we just battled and now we are here.”
Battled is the right word. PikeView had seven hits, Independence had four, two of which made it out of the infield — one went about 10 feet.
Baseball can be a cruel game.
“What hurts is we did things to win this game,” Wyatt said.
So did the Patriots, which pushed across one run on a bases-loaded walk in the third to tie the score at 1-1, and added its winning run in the fifth when a simple two-out flip to second for a possible force play was too late, allowing a runner from third to cross the plate.
It was an ironic twist from the only other meeting this season between these clubs when the Panthers were victorious 13-10.
PikeView has chances, and lots of them. Eleven runners were left on base, including two in each of the first three innings, and also stranded two in the fateful seventh.
Independence did much the same, taking advantage of seven walks, but still stranded nine runners, including two apiece in three of the seven innings.
There were mental errors. PikeView had a courtesy runner who turned his back on a fly ball to center field in the first and never knew the ball was dropped.
Independence, which had the game’s leadoff batter picked off first base, had another run cut down on a perfect pair of throws from Ryan Roberts — who had caught a fly ball for the second out in the third — and pitcher Levi Nash, who relayed the ball to Hunter Moses at the plate.
It was just that kind of hard-fought game that could have gone either way. Even the winning run came as a result of a late flip and a hustling Huffman who slid into second base before the ball could reach the bag.
Both crowds were into the game from the start, and it was as entertaining as a high school baseball game could be.
“They had a great year and they played real hard,” Cuthbert said. “They beat us to death the first time we played. It is what you are supposed to see in a regional final, we were just fortunate to come out on top this time.”
Just getting to Charleston can be hard enough. Just ask PikeView.
Cuthbert knows it too. His senior-dominated Patriots can’t be satisfied, they have to realize there are still two more games to win.
“You have just got to take each game at a time, it makes it tough,” Cuthbert said. “To me it is so much pressure to get there and sometimes you forget about playing.
“We have just got to try and stay focused for the next week and see what we can do. Whoever we face, that is what I told them last week, any team that you play now is as good as you are.
“You just have to play the best you can and see what happens.”
While Independence will move on, PikeView will bid adieu to five seniors, several of whom were part of Wyatt’s first team in 2011 — including Moses and Jordan Hardin.
That team rallied from an improbable 8-3 deficit in the bottom of the seventh to win the first of two playoff games at Summers County, finishing with a 9-22 record, but also claiming the first of three sectional titles in the next four years.
The Panthers improved to 12-17 in 2012, and reached the Region III title game the last two years, finishing with sterling marks of 26-11 and 25-8, but one game short each season of the ultimate goal.
“It is tough, this is my first four-year class, the seniors that I am losing, they are like sons to me so it hurts to see them go,” Wyatt said. “We are definitely going to miss them, they have been leaders here since they were freshmen.
“It hurts, it is tough to move on from here, but we have got to find a way to get back to this point again next year.”
Wyatt said during an early season interview that while he was excited about the prospects of his current team, he was really excited about ... 2015.
No wonder. PikeView will return Austin Cordell, who fell one RBI short of the state’s single-season record, and seven sophomores and freshmen who saw some type of action against the Patriots.
The sting will be there, much like it was last season, but watch out for the Panthers. Even better days are ahead.
“This is tougher than last year because we battled,” Wyatt said. “Last year we left with an excuse, this year we battled in a great pitched game, we are going to bounce back.
“Tonight we had seven sophomores or under that saw time and Austin is a junior there. We are loaded and ready for next year. I had four pitchers that threw 50-plus innings this year and one of them was a sophomore and one of them was a freshmen.
“We are doing great things here,” he concluded. “I promise you next year we will take that next step.”
Make your reservations, PikeView fans. The Panthers in Charleston in 2015.
Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at email@example.com / Twitter @bdtwoodson.