If Silver Creek is to win the Class 3A baseball state championship this season, it will have to survive a murderer’s row of ranked teams to do it.
The Dragons (22-10) downed two ranked opponents to win the Silver Creek Sectional on Monday, with wins against No. 8 Corydon Central and No. 6 North Harrison.
On Saturday, The Dragons will face the toughest test yet, a first-round regional matchup against No. 1 Jasper (28-3).
On paper, it looks like the deck is stacked in the Wildcats’ favor. Jasper will enjoy home-field advantage on Saturday. The Dragons will be without the services of catcher Luke McIntyre, who was ejected from the sectional championship game against North Harrison — one of a series of questionable calls made in the two games.
But if anything, Silver Creek has proven itself to be especially resilient. The Dragons came from behind in their wins against Panthers and Cougars. In the semifinals, Silver Creek was down 7-4 in the home seventh before rallying for four runs. In the championship game, the Dragons were down 9-3 before home runs by Matt Hawn and Lucas Barnett got them back in the game. They trailed again, 10-9, in the eighth before scoring twice to win in a do-or-die situation.
The Dragons have shown they know how to skin a cat, but this Jasper team is a different animal.
“Playing Jasper at Jasper is always a challenge,” Silver Creek coach Joe Decker said. “(Terry Gobert is) a great coach. (The Wildcats) remind me of Chris McIntyre teams — they always play solid. They don’t beat themselves. For them to lose, you know that you beat them. You came out and you had to play a good game and beat them. They’re not going to go out and kick it around for you. We’ve got to play well, without question.”
For Silver Creek, it will all start on the mound. The Dragons will likely start Lucas Barnett (8-3), who recorded the win pitching in relief against North Harrison after starting the Corydon game. Barnett has struck out 79 in 67 1/3 innings of work, and he boasts a 2.18 ERA.
But Jasper can hurt you from every spot in its lineup. The Wildcats’ best batting average belongs to Karson Nixon, who is hitting .393 from the seven hole. Devon Taylor is at .375, while Nick Gobert is batting .348.
At the top of the order is Caleb Begle, who is getting on base in just under half his at-bats. But perhaps the most dangerous sticks on the Jasper roster belong to Dane Giesler and Mark Giesler, who are tied for the team lead with 38 RBI.
Barnett will pitch to Shae Durham, who will spell Luke McIntyre as he serves his one-game ban.
“I think the biggest challenge is we lost our catcher for a game,” Decker said. “He got thrown out because he defended himself, so he doesn’t get to play in that first game. I think that’s the biggest obstacle we face, is moving Shae to catcher. We’ve just basically got to move around three people. That’s our biggest thing, moving Shae back behind the plate. Shae does great back there, but then it moves us at shortstop.”
If Barnett is able to slow down the Jasper offense, the Dragons will still need to solve the Wildcats’ pitchers. It’s not yet known who will get the nod to start the game, but it’s likely to be Gobert, who boasts an ERA of 0.92. Other possibilities include Mark Giesler (1.80 ERA) and Nixon (1.65).
The Dragons will counter with a lineup that includes four starters in the .300s. The biggest threat at the plate this year for Creek has been Jacob Armstrong, who is hitting at a .393 clip. Armstrong has seven homers and 38 RBI this season.
Despite a tough challenge, there is optimism in the Silver Creek clubhouse.
“I think our kids feel like they can win,” Decker said. “I think we really do. And hopefully last year, with as bad as we played in the regional, was a learning experience. But I feel like our kids feel like we can win over there.”
Should Silver Creek defeat Jasper, it doesn’t get any easier. The Dragons will then face either Evansville Memorial (5-23) or — far more likely — No. 3 Greensburg (25-1) in the championship game.