Center Grove baseball falls to Mooresville in wild sectional final


Whoever decided that it’s better to give than to receive obviously never played baseball.

Class 4A No. 1 Center Grove did a little too much giving in the championship game of the Bloomington North Sectional, and third-ranked Mooresville took advantage of the generosity, coming away with an 11-6 victory in a way-too-early clash of state titans on Monday evening.

The Trojans (27-3) walked 11 Pioneer batters, hit two more and had a couple of costly mistakes in the field to help Mooresville spin gold out of seven hits despite leaving 10 runners on.

“When it came down to it, we gave them 16 free bases,” Center Grove coach Keith Hatfield said. “You’re not going to win any games — especially against a good program like that — when you give them 16 free bases.”

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After failing to capitalize on two runners in scoring position in the bottom of the first inning, Mooresville (28-3) chased Center Grove starter Kobe Cherry by drawing three straight walks to start the second. Trojan reliever Brendan Ealy was then rudely greeted by Kaleb Kestler, the Pioneers’ No. 9 hitter, who took one deep to right center for a grand slam and a 4-0 lead. Hogan Denny followed with a solo shot just over the wall in left center to make it a five-run game.

Center Grove got on the board in the top of the fourth when Tristan Yerman hit a one-out double for his team’s first hit and courtesy runner Patrick Smith eventually came home on an infield single by Gannon Grant. Mooresville starter Brendin Oliver, though, registered his fifth strikeout to leave the bases full of Trojans, and the Pioneers stretched their advantage to 8-1 with three runs in the bottom of the frame. Deklan Thompson drove in a pair of runs with a double, and he later came home when a short pop-up off the bat of Selby Barton got lost in the setting sun and dropped in for an RBI hit.

But the Trojans — who have scored at least five runs in every game this season — weren’t about to fade away without a fight, putting up a five-spot in the top of the fifth.

With the bases loaded again after a walk, a fielder’s choice and Oliver’s fourth hit batter of the evening, Center Grove’s Andrew Krupa grooved a double into the left-center field gap, bringing A.J. Beggs, Reed Sawa and Smith in to make it 8-4. Krupa then scored with two out on a ground-rule double by Noah Coy, who later stole third and slid across the plate after an errant throw from the catcher back to the pitcher.

“I love our guys for not folding,” Hatfield said. “We made them work a little bit.”

The momentum, though, was fleeting.

Taking advantage of free baserunners once again, Mooresville responded with three more runs in the bottom of the inning. A hit batter and two walks loaded the bases with one out for Thompson, whose two-run single doubled the lead at 10-6, and a throwing error on a fielder’s choice allowed another run to score. Center Grove reliever Cal Schembra did manage to avoid even greater damage, getting a pop out and a strikeout to leave Pioneers on second and third base.

Back in a five-run hole, the Trojans then had to contend with the ghost of sectional past in Denny, who had shut out a powerful Center Grove lineup in the postseason two years ago. Taking off his catching gear and spelling Oliver after Coy’s RBI hit in the fifth, Denny recorded the final seven outs of the night for the Pioneers without allowing a hit. The senior, who will play at Indiana University, ended the game by punching out Grant for his fifth strikeout.

The Trojans weren’t without opportunities. They had runners on second and third with nobody out against Oliver in the first inning, and they put two runners in scoring position again in the second. Both times, they came up empty. Center Grove finished the game with 11 men left on base.

Those missed chances, along with the extra ones they provided the Pioneers, were enough to sink the Trojans. Hatfield noted that issuing too many walks had been a running theme for his young pitching staff this spring, even during their many victories.

“Anytime we got ourselves in trouble, it wasn’t because we were getting knocked around the park,” the coach said. “We were always giving free bases away. So that’ll be a focus next offseason for sure, no doubt about it.”

Both teams had to work just to reach the championship game. Mooresville edged the host Cougars in one semifinal, 3-2, while the Trojans trailed by four runs early before storming back for an 11-6 win over Bloomington South. Yerman and Drake McClurg both homered in that comeback win for Center Grove, while Schembra and Easton Smith had three RBIs apiece.

Though his team couldn’t muster one more win on Monday, Hatfield was proud of what the group accomplished this season after graduating a great deal of offensive firepower and almost all of its pitching from last season’s 4A state runner-up.

“We knew coming in we were going to have a target on our back,” he said, “and I thought for being as inexperienced as we were, especially on the mound, I thought we handled it really well.”