WESTON, Mo. — West Platte’s five seniors fanned out across the outfield, spread out enough to stand alone with their thoughts.
Peyton Morris put a towel over his head and walked toward the right field foul pole. McKaulley Stephenson lingered at the end of the line near center field. Bluejays coach Tanner Lawson untucked his jersey and walked around with purpose.
All were coming to terms with the result of a dramatic Class 2 quarterfinal against Lincoln on Wednesday, May 25 at Benner Park.
Stephenson, West Platte’s senior ace and soon-to-be four-time all-state pitcher, struck out 15 in 10 innings, allowing only two hits, but ended up with a loss. Lincoln managed a single run after loading the bases with no outs in the top of the 10th and held on for an almost improbable 1-0 victory.
The loss brought a fitting but devastating end to Stephenson’s career.
“What a way for him to go out,” West Platte coach Tanner Lawson said. “I don’t know how many times I have to say it, what he can do and how he can carry us. We just didn’t come through.
“Not much else we could do except hit the ball a little better.”
Taking in all factors, West Platte shouldn’t have been in the playoffs.
The Bluejays lost shortstop/pitcher Luke Horseman to a season-ending wrist injury a month ago. Yet, the remaining four seniors picked up the slack and fought to the conclusion of an occasionally bumpy regular season.
Stephenson at the top of the rotation and Morris behind the plate provided a steady battery. Brett Shepardson struck out 26 batters in 14 innings during two District 16 victories and an 8-1 sectional win against Adrian the night before the Lincoln game.
Michael Devers regained his starting spot at third base, while Mitch Moppin fought his way into a designated hitter role.
“I’m definitely proud of our team that we made it this far,” said Horseman, who went to every practice and game after breaking his wrist against North Platte back on March 30. “It stunk to watch from the bench, but it was awesome to watch this team. I was proud — supporting them because that’s all I could do.”
Horseman and Stephenson were the only mainstays through a historic four-year run, the final holdovers from West Platte’s Class 2 state title game appearance back in 2013.
The remaining seniors and the rest of the Bluejays’ roster helped fill in a talented but inexperienced lineup that ended up finishing fourth in the KCI Conference. However, they came back to hold off Lone Jack in a District 16 semifinal behind the first of Shepardson’s two double-digit strikeout outings in the postseason then stunned No. 2-ranked Mid-Buchanan 5-3 in the title game one night later in the first of two extra inning thrillers in the span of a week.
The whole way, Lawson continued to tinker with his lineup, which produced just enough offense until the matchup with Lincoln and pitcher Connor Spunaugle. West Platte’s fourth playoff appearance in four years ended in quarterfinals for the second time in three years, adding to the state runner-up finish four years ago and last year’s tie for third place.
“It’s awesome that we got to this point every year,” Stephenson said. “Freshman year, we went (to state). Sophomore year we missed the cut. Last year, we went. I was really hoping to avoid that nasty little pattern.”
West Platte’s extra inning win against Mid-Buchanan slogged on for hours in a somewhat sloppy 10-inning pitcher’s duel that saw Stephenson go nine innings and strike out 12 before the Bluejays scored the winning runs in the 10th. Shepardson struck out the side in the bottom of the 10th to secure the playoff win.
In the quarterfinal matchup, both Stephenson and Spunaugle were nearly flawless. Both took shutouts into the 10th, exhausting inning limits for both by the end of the game.
West Platte put a runner on in each of the first three innings despite no hits and a walk.
Morris singled in the bottom of the fourth for the game’s first hit, but the Bluejays only had one runner in scoring position early. Kyle Tabaka reached on a fielder’s choice and stole second, but the Cardinals ended the threat, catching the junior center fielder trying to take third with two outs.
Stephenson rolled early and took a no-hitter into the seventh.
Lincoln’s Richard Renno reached with an infield single to start that inning and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. Stephenson navigated the trouble with a lineout to second base and one of his strikeouts.
Despite three opportunities, West Platte couldn’t produce a walkoff run, and Lincoln finally broke through the smallest of cracks.
Stephenson walked Dominic Simmons to start the 10th, and Mason Sanders followed with a solid single up the middle — the first and only ball the Cardinals hit out of the infield. With Simmons running on the two-strike pitch, he moved to third.
Lawson opted to intentionally walk Spunaugle to load the bases but create a forceout at any base.
Lincoln started with a safety squeeze bunt that Corbin Reese laid down in front of home plate. Stephenson hopped off the mound and scooped to Morris at the plate for the first out and initially denying the Cardinals the first run.
“For somebody that most people don’t think is very athletic, he made a pretty good athletic play right there,” Lawson said.
Renno then grounded to first base with one out, and Jack Summers’ throw to the plate was late, allowing Sanders to score the go-ahead run.
Stephenson made another stellar play on a ground ball back to him, throwing home from a seated position for another force out to record the second out. He struck out the final batter to give West Platte one final shot to score.
“It was just adrenaline going,” said Stephenson, who threw 125 pitches. “I didn’t want to lose this game.”
With Spunaugle at his limit for innings, Corbin Mertgen came in to close.
Moppin coaxed a one-out walk to bring the tying run to the plate, and Devers followed with a walk to put the potential winning run on first. Summers grounded to shortstop on the very next pitch, resulting in a 6-3 double play that ended the inning, the game and the careers of five seniors.
“Cardiac kids were finally out of beat,” Lawson said.