The thrill of victory ...

Trace Willhoite takes the long walk back to Scott County’s dugout while Henry Clay celebrates its 42nd District baseball championship win in the background. Down by six runs entering the fifth inning, Henry Clay rallied for a 9-6 win on its home field Monday night, snapping the Cardinals’ 36-game winning streak in the district and giving the Blue Devils their first tournament championship since 2015.

LEXINGTON — Scott County’s 36 consecutive district baseball wins hadn’t come without the Cardinals’ fair share of improbable, even impossible comebacks.

This season’s erasure of a nine-run deficit against Frederick Douglass springs to mind, as does a late-inning grand slam last season versus Henry Clay.

So when analyzing Monday night’s fall-from ahead, 9-6 loss to the latter rival on the Blue Devils’ home field, it’s easy enough to rationalize that SC simply was due for the magic cleats to be on the other feet.

“I’m not mad about the way we played,” SC coach Scott Willard. “Sometimes the ball bounces funny. How many times did we hit the ball right at the guy, especially in the last inning? Just a lot of things fell the other way today.”

Fittingly, the big shot was a no-doubt grand slam to left field by Luc Morgan, his first home run of the season, capping a six-run top of the sixth (as top seed, Scott County was the “home” team).

Morgan’s heroics completed Henry Clay’s rise from a 6-0 deficit entering the fifth. To that point, they were scoreless compared to 20 runs for Scott County in the three-game series this season.

“It’s nothing that we did wrong. I’m extremely pleased with our effort,” Willard said. “We tried as hard as we could to win the game. When you’ve got an opportunity up 6-2 going into the top of the sixth inning, you’ve got to finish the game.”

Every starter for Henry Clay (21-16) had at least one hit, most of them coming late. Morgan’s blast made him the only repeat     offender.

William Webb added a solo home run in the seventh, and Trace Willhoite’s subsequent leadoff double wasn’t enough to fuel an SC rally.

Willhoite, Sam Daniel and Seth Benner each delivered two of the Cardinals’ 10 hits.

The sudden turn of events denied the seniors from Scott County (23-11) their fourth consecutive district title and a perfect career record in the five-team subdivision. It also snapped a nine-game winning streak, the Cards’ longest of this season.

Scott County still advances to the 11th Region tournament but must begin on the road against either Franklin County, Madison Central or the 43nd District champion (Tates Creek or Lafayette) this weekend. Date and time will be determined after Thursday’s draw.

“That’s not a death sentence or the end of our season. Here’s what it means: Our first round game, we’ve got to go somewhere and play,” Willard said. “We played great on the road all year. We just have to see who and where we draw and figure out our pitching.”

The region semifinal and championship rounds will be played at SC’s Sutton Field.

Willard admittedly was thinking ahead ever-so-slightly when he removed starter McKee with a 6-2 lead after five innings.

McKee gave up two runs in that frame, with doubles by Drew Gilbert and Will Byerman inflicting most of the damage. He’d only thrown about 70 pitches, but senior Willhoite and his 0.63 ERA were waiting in the bullpen.

“He’d thrown well all year, and you never know when you get into that region game if it’s Saturday who you might have to throw,” Willard said. “I didn’t want to tax Cade so much, but we had to, so put it on me for taking Cade out.”

McKee returned to the game, inheriting the potential  tying and go-ahead runs from Willhoite, and gave up the Morgan shot. 

Scott County stormed to its sizable lead with three runs in the second inning and a matching total in the fourth.

Back-to-back triples by the eighth and ninth hitters in the lineup, Benner and Preston Rankin, put the Cards on the board.

In the fourth, a single by Beniam Bond and Benner’s ground-rule double set up an RBI groundout by Rankin.

Next up was a squeeze bunt by Trent Fox. It was perfectly placed down the third-base line, and Fox beat it out for an RBi single.

Kyle Harbison followed with a double to make it 6-0.

“We did a lot of good things,” Willard said. “I look up there and we had 10 hits. We didn’t kick the ball around and make a bunch of errors. You have to give Henry Clay all the credit for making plays.”

Harbison, Daniel (who was 6-for-7 in two games) and semifinal winning pitcher Jordan Fox were all-tournament selections.

If there is a silver living for Scott County, it’s that the Cards’ marquee male athletic teams have made a habit out of digging from such holes this school year.

“There have been a lot of times when a team didn’t win the district and still played for a state championship,’ Willard said. “Our football team this year finished third, our basketball team finished second, and they both still played in the state final.

“Hopefully everybody will come back in the right frame of mind and motivated to win the regional championship. Eight days from now this might be a big afterthought.”

Scott County suffered its most recent district loss in the 2015 semifinals against Sayre. Henry Clay’s last tournament title also happened that year.

Looking ahead to the regional tournament, SC was 3-1 against its possible first-round opponents. The Cards won at Franklin County and Lafayette and defeated top-five Tates Creek.

The lone loss was to Madison Central, also the school that defeated Scott County in last year’s region final.

Kal Oakes can be reached via email at sports@news-graphic.com.

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