WESTON, Mo. — The taste of postseason heartbreak remains fresh for a good chunk of West Platte’s starting lineup, which features plenty of players familiar with playoff disappointment.
Now, the retooled Bluejays have another shot at the program’s first state championship thanks to a 8-0 win against Miller in a Class 2 quarterfinal Wednesday, May 27 at Benner Park. In the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, West Platte features six players who started in a 2013 championship game loss to Hartville. They featured again during a quarterfinal run a year ago.
“We’ve used it as motivation,” said West Platte Junior ace McKaulley Stephenson, who started on the mound in the loss to Hartville — a game the Bluejays led entering the bottom of the seventh inning. “It was frustrating. Everyone has worked incredibly hard. They want to get back to that point and prove we can finish it. What happens at state, it happens. We feel like we have just as good of chance as anybody.”
West Platte’s third trip to the Class 2 semifinals was scheduled to start Wednesday, June 3 against defending state champion Valle Catholic (28-5) at T.R. Hughes Ballpark in O’Fallon, Mo. The winner advances to the championship game the next day (1:30 p.m.), while the loser will play for third (10:30 a.m.) prior to the title tilt.
“With Mac on the mound we can play with anybody in the state,” West Platte coach Tanner Lawson said. “We’re at least one of the final four. He’s pitched (in the quarterfinal game) for three years now. He’s a seasoned vet.”
A majority of the roster, not just Stephenson, knows the Missouri State Baseball Championships’ setup after making the trip in 2013.
West Platte beat Canton 5-1 in the semis, setting up the championship matchup with Hartville. Cody Guthrie (shortstop), Clay Lambrecht (designated hitter), Ben Heili (left field) and Tanner Lintner (first base) — now seniors — were all in the starting lineup that day, along with then-freshmen Stephenson (pitcher and third base) and Luke Horseman (right field).
Horseman put the Bluejays ahead 3-2 in the top of the fifth with a double down the left field line.
After allowing two runs in the first, Stephenson stranded nine runners in the first six innings before allowing a leadoff single in the seventh. West Platte opted to put Logan Moose, the senior ace, on the mound for the remainder, but he allowed a double to the first batter he faced to put Hartville in position to steal a win.
A groundout scored one before Moose induced a foul popout to put West Platte one out away from forcing extra innings. Instead, Guthrie fielded Kevin Prock’s slow roller to shortstop but couldn’t throw him out, the infield hit that gave Hartville the title and left the Bluejays stunned.
The stinging memories for the returning players will help guide this year’s title chase.
“Some of us know what it’s like to be there,” Guthrie said. “But it takes a team to win games while you’re down there. We’re going to have to show a little leadership and carry everyone else along with us.”
Even with all of the returning experience, a new addition provided the first offensive spark in this year’s quarterfinal.
Peyton Morris — a junior catcher who transferred in from Oklahoma — slid a ball down the right field line for a two-RBI triple in the bottom of the first inning — plating the game’s first two runs. The Bluejays went on to score five total to give Stephenson a comfortable lead. He struck out the side in the first inning on nine pitches and went on to allow only two hits and three walks while fanning 12 to earn the complete game victory.
“It was pretty rough (sliding into third),” Morris said. “I’m a little scraped up, but it’s worth it. It was great to come out and jump on a team early.”
West Platte ended up putting runners on base in every inning but the sixth, but all of the scoring came in two innings. The Bluejays added three more in the fifth but already had plenty to help erase some of the memories of a quarterfinal loss to Archie in the 2014 playoffs. They came back to beat the Whirlwinds in sectionals this season ahead of the quarterfinal win that booked the second state berth in three seasons.
“It’s exciting,” Heili said. “After a year off, we thought we should have been there last year; we just didn’t make the plays to get back there. It definitely drove us this year. We knew how fun it is to get down there. We knew what a great time it was, but to have it end the way it did with the walkoff, that still burns down deep. To have all the guys coming back with all that experience. It definitely helps.
“We can lead the younger guys. We just want to get first this year, go down there and finish business.”
Two of the returning players man different spots with Guthrie (shortstop), Heili (left field), Stephenson (pitcher) and Lintner (first base) remaining in place. Horseman has moved to second base and will likely pitch at some point during the season’s final two games, while Lambrecht plays at third base.
Newcomers in addition to Morris are Seth Eagen (center field), Brett Shepherdson (right field) and Mitch Moppin (designated hitter).
With plenty of experienced leadership, West Platte started the season at 3-3 but enter the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak — the last loss a 2-1 rain-shortened heartbreaker to Lawson on May 4 which cost the Bluejays a share of the KCI Conference title.
Since that loss, West Platte has allowed only five runs in seven games with five shutouts.
“We had a few losses at the start,” Heili said. “That really wasn’t our goal coming out, but we regrouped. “We bounced back well. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going for two more games.”
For the five seniors in the starting lineup and the rest of the recent graduates, there won’t be another second chance.