CATLIN — It was a liability all season, and in the most important game of the season, it reared its ugly head again.
All year, said head coach Milt Kelly, the Fisher baseball team was unable to string together consistent defensive plays. In a 10-0 loss to Milford on Thursday in a Class 1A Salt Fork Regional semifinal game, the Bunnies committed three costly errors that proved fatal in the season-ending loss.
"You can really sum up the liability of the season in one word, and that was the defense," Kelly said. "We had great practices. We worked incredibly hard in practice on defense, and we had practices where we just played great defense, including the last one of the year. We had a live simulated situation against live hitters, and, man, we made every single play for seven simulated innings. Just looked great, and I thought, ‘Man, we’ve got the corner turned on this.’ That’s been about three or four times where we’ve got the corner turned on it, but then we couldn’t make plays."
Trailing 3-0 in the third inning, the Bunnies committed a pair of errors that helped contribute to four more Bearcat runs coming across. And in the fifth, down 7-0, another Fisher error on a line drive that could have been converted into an inning-ending double play led to the final three runs being scored.
"We were down 7-0 in the fifth inning, and I honestly — this may sound weird — didn’t think we were really out of it. I felt like if we shut them down that inning, we had the capacity to make a run," Kelly said. "We had bases loaded the previous inning but couldn’t get a hit, and we had a ball that almost went out of the ball park with the wind blowing in, which is rare down there. Held the ball in the park and kept us from scoring a couple runs.
"(Defense) has been the frustration of the season and end of the season especially. No shortage of work by the coaches and the players to try and fix it, but defense was a liability all season long, especially toward the end."
Part of the explanation, Kelly surmised, was the lack of time being spent on baseball in the offseason. None of the infielders played summer ball, and of the nine defensive starters, only four of them played in the summer.
"We’ve got an infield that did the best they could, but none of those guys played any summer ball, and that’s where you get confident making plays, when you play 20-30 games in the summer. The more time you have, the better you’re going to get. We say experience is the best teacher, and it really is. We just didn’t have that.
"These guys have to buy into the concept of working hard (at baseball) in the summer. And it’s hard. I know the football coaches and basketball coaches want the guys to be involved in those sports, too, but they’ve got to make some time to improve their skills as baseball players. That old adage is so true — that (high school) baseball teams are made between March and May, and baseball players are made between June and September. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, and a lot of the teams we played this year were full of guys that played all summer long, and it showed. They got better. We’ve had some very good teams in the past, and those teams were made up of guys that played in the summer. I’m such a believer in that, and I believe that until that changes as part of the culture here, it’s going to be very hard to improve very much on what we’ve done the last couple seasons."
Fisher finished the season 6-16-1, a one-game improvement in the win column and four less losses than a season ago. But Kelly said that was not the type of improvement the club was looking for compared to what could have been.
He believes the Bunnies could have been a .500 team or perhaps a bit better. He pinpointed six different losses that could have easily gone the other way, and maybe should have. Most notably — a 6-5 loss to Fieldcrest on April 27 in which Fisher held a 4-0 lead in the fourth inning; an 11-6 loss to Eureka when the Bunnies held a 6-2 lead in the fourth inning before a debilitating ankle injury to first baseman Chris Hess sucked the momentum out of the Fisher players; a 5-3 loss to Armstrong-Potomac on March 28 on a day that was questionable to play due to weather and field conditions.
But the game Kelly was most disappointed in was an early-season 3-2 loss to Blue Ridge on April 5 in extra innings. Though he did not want to complain about the umpiring in that defeat, he put it as politically as possible.
"Suffice it is to say, I felt like that game was there for us, and I felt like if we extended the game one more inning, we had the top of the order up, and I thought we would put three or four on the board in that situation," Kelly said. "That game was there for us, and to characterize it this way, I felt like we were unfortunate to lose that game. That’s probably the most gracious way to say it. That game really was a key factor because we had a lot of confidence going in, and after that we lost a little bit of our mojo at that point. There were some extraneous things in that situation."
The loss to the Knights halted the Bunnies’ momentum and confidence after coming into the game with a 2-1-1 record following big wins over Oakwood and Cissna Park and a tie against Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin, three quality opponents.
"There were some key games that really could’ve gone the other way. A key game at a key point in the season can really serve to build your confidence or it can serve to tear it down. I think we suffered from that a little bit in terms of the timing of those close games we didn’t quite get," Kelly said. "We were competitive in the late innings against some of the best teams in the conference. … Those are just a few of the ones that came to mind. There were probably six games in our season that could’ve and should’ve gone the other way, and if you change our season by six games, it looks a lot different.
"If we had been able to turn those games around, we would’ve been about a .500 team. In retrospect, looking at the quality of the teams we played, that’s about what we could’ve been is about a .500 team because the HOIC was incredibly tough this year. Everybody was good, and we were happy to get a win against a good Lexington team, and we were glad to get a little revenge on Ridgeview for a game we lost that we probably shouldn’t have."
Though defense was a bugaboo and a severe frustration for Fisher all season, Kelly relished over the improvement and talent shown in the other two key facets of the game, pitching and hitting.
"On the other side, the hitting overall for the season really exceeded our goals," Kelly said. "We were about 15 (batting average) points better than what I was expecting this year as a team. Pitching-wise, we had our pitchers throwing more first-pitch strikes than what our goal was, and they did a number of things really well. So you’ve got the three elements there — pitching, hitting and defense — two of those were pretty good. The third one was bad enough to take things down the wrong road."
Kelly discussed several of his key players who had tremendous seasons.
Dakota Matthews served as a spark as the Bunnies’ leadoff hitter (.409 batting average, 15 runs scored, 10 stolen bases), Dawson Purvis was one of the area leaders in strikeouts (69 strikeouts in 37 innings), Chris Hess was Fisher’s top power hitter (five home runs, 16 RBI in 18 games), Jacob Horsch had a solid season (.333, 15 RBI), Dylan Baker was a leader (.290, 13 RBI), Brandon Henson was terrific in his first season of high school baseball (.367, 10 RBI), and Jed Chow showed promise on the mound (4.29 earned run average, 47 strikeouts).
Tyler and Tyrese Martin were also two players Kelly touched on who served crucial roles.
"There were some good individual efforts, and, again, if not for some of the defensive letdowns and inability to make the extra play, this team could’ve been at least six wins better," Kelly said. "It was frustrating in a lot of respects, but the one thing I will not apologize for is the amount of work the kids put in and the quality of the work. The effort was there, the intensity was there, and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that."
It was not the ending Fisher wanted, as winning a regional championship and finishing high in the conference were preseason goals. But Kelly hopes the players will be motivated following the loss to Milford.
"The thing I challenged them with is to not forget what losing that regional semifinal game feels like and make it your business to go forward next year and go further and win a regional. There’s going to be seven seniors on that ball club next year. That’s a good thing, obviously, when you have that kind of senior leadership," Kelly said. "Baker’s going to be a leader on that team. There’s no doubt. And I think Jed Chow is going to step up and be a leader on that team. The Martin boys (will be big). Those four guys will especially be people that really step up and take that team forward, for sure.
"We’ll go forward, and the goal is to keep working and keep getting better. There was no shortage of effort or work this year, and there won’t be in the future that’s for sure."
Contact Zack Carpenter at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.