By Mark Ambrogi
Center Grove High School coach Keith Hatfield had no doubt his baseball team would keep fighting.
“It’s one of the most resilient groups of kids I’ve ever been around, so that didn’t surprise me,” Hatfield said.
The Class 4A No. 1 Trojans lost to unranked Penn 2-0 in the IHSAA Class 4A state championship June 17 at Victory Field in Indianapolis. It was the Kingsmen’s (27-8) second consecutive state title. Center Grove finished with a 29-4 record, reaching the state championship game for the first time.
Hatfield said the players are dedicated.
“Hard work and gym rats is probably the biggest thing that I could say about this group, especially the seniors, they lost their freshman year,” Hatfield said of the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the 2020 season. “But they didn’t lose their offseason.”
Trojans senior Jacob Murphy allowed five hits in four innings. Senior Caden Cornett didn’t allow a hit in the final three innings.
“It’s like 1A and 1B,” Hatfield said of his top pitchers. “I didn’t really make a decision early this week (who would start). We had to sleep on it a couple of times. Ultimately, it came down to that we trusted Caden out of the bullpen. They both could have thrown a complete game shutout. So Caden doing what he did out of the bullpen is what we expected him to do.”
Penn starter Adam Lehmann struck out 10 and allowed just three hits in six innings. Dawson French pitched the final inning.
“We thought it was going to be a low-scoring game and it turned out to be that way,” Hatfield said. “Their hard-hit balls found gaps and ours didn’t.”
After Penn scored two runs in the third inning, the Trojans looked to have a shot for extra-base hit in the fourth. Center Grove senior catcher Grant Sawa hit a deep liner, but center fielder Cooper Hums made a great, over-the-shoulder catch. With two outs in the sixth, Sawa singled and senior left fielder Bradley Gilliam walked but junior designated hitter A.J. Beggs lined to shortstop Cam Dombroski, who had made a lunging catch.
In the final inning, Dombrowski dropped a pop-up by Gannon Grant and Noah Coy walked, before French got the final two outs.
“Maybe it was the baseball gods giving us a break when they dropped the ball in the last inning,” Hatfield said.
But it wasn’t to be.
“We struck out too many times and that was the difference in the game,” Hatfield said.
Coy, a junior third baseman, said Lehmann, who is headed to Western Michigan, deserved a lot of credit.
“He had a lot of spin on his fastball,” said Coy, who has committed to the University of Cincinnati.
Coy said the Trojans never quit.
“We’ve been taught that since we’re even freshmen when we came in here and that’s our mentality,” Coy said.
Center Grove was down 2-0 to Castle in the semistate final before rallying for a 5-2 victory.
“We trust ourselves,” Coy said. “We felt like we were the best team in the state. We felt we were going to scratch a run and that just didn’t happen today. But we have full confidence in ourselves. I guarantee if we play tomorrow, we’d still come out and have confidence in ourselves.”
In addition to losing their two top pitchers, the Trojans lose senior starters, Sawa, Gilliam, shortstop Drew Culbertson, center fielder Garrison Barile and right fielder Evan Zapp.
“I’m super close to all these senior guys, so it’s hard,” Coy said. “Cherishing what they’ve accomplished and what they’ve done is what we’re going to do moving forward, and then we’re going to get back to work in the off-season.”
Culbertson, who is headed to the University of Missouri, led the team with a .419 average and eight home runs, followed by Coy at .373, Zapp .366, Barile .320 and Sawa .317. Barile will play for Miami (Ohio) University. Zapp is for Queens College, a Charlotte program now plays in Division I and Sawa will play for Purdue Fort Wayne.
Murphy, who had a 9-2 record, has signed with Thomas More University, a Division II program in Crestview Hills, Ky., and Cornett (4-1 record) with Purdue Fort Wayne. Ben Murphy, no relation to Jake, finished with a 5-0 mark and 1.28 earned run average.