Flashback Friday: Frankfort's 2019 state baseball tourament

Staff Writer
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
Frankfort's 2019 state runner-up squad poses in Charleston.

By Chapin Jewell

Tribune Correspondent

SHORT GAP - To this point, our Flashback Friday articles have centered around high school football, with the first three focusing on Mineral Bowls between Keyser and Frankfort, and last week’s detailing Keyser’s 2015 victory over Fort Hill.  Last week, we branched out from Mineral Bowls; this week, we branch out from football altogether to take a look back at Frankfort’s memorable state baseball tournament of 2019.

Before examining the memorable 2019 season of Frankfort baseball, it’s important to take note of two things. First, despite great success over the years, Frankfort hasn’t won a state baseball championship since 1988, the first team state title, and only boys’ state title in school history. Also, in 2018, Frankfort reached the state baseball tournament in Charleston but lost a heartbreaking, nine inning 7-6, rain delayed semi-final to Wayne.

In 2019, while Frankfort did indeed have a talented list of returners from the 2018 squad, the reality is that much of the 2018 talent, several of whom went on to play college baseball, had been lost to graduation. It would take not only the proven returning players, but also a new crop of talent to step up if the Falcons were going to make it back to Charleston.  And that’s exactly what happened.

When the dust cleared, Frankfort, after one of the most memorable baseball games in state baseball history, a 3-2 win over Scott in the semi-finals, would ultimately lose the state championship game to Bridgeport 5-2. It was the sixth state title in as many years for the Indians, nonetheless, the Falcons would finish as an impressive state runner-up in 2019.

While a state championship was most certainly the goal, Frankfort’s 2019 season can still be described as remarkable.  The Falcons’ concluded the season with a record of 27-6 and as West Virginia’s class AA runner-up.Three of Frankfort’s six losses were to this year’s class AA and class A state champions (Bridgeport and Moorefield), one to a AAA state semi-finalist (Hedgesville), and the remaining two were to AAA neighbor and rival Hampshire.

“I’ve got kids that I’ll love until the day I die because they gave me everything they had, everything; that’s what high school sports is all about, giving everything you have for the name on the front of your shirt; I don’t put names on the back of our jerseys because we are Frankfort High School, we’re not individuals; those kids play for Frankfort High School. I am so proud of them; we didn’t get the job done here today, but I wouldn’t trade this team for any team in the world,” Frankfort coach Matt Miller said after the 2019 title game loss to Bridgeport.

The 2018 and 2019 squads will certainly be remembered as among the most talented and successful teams in school history. Miller reflected on this successful and memorable two-year run, “It’s been a great ride; this group of juniors and seniors, those guys from last year and this year, the memories they’re going to have with their brothers, what else could those kids ask for? Did we want to win the championship, absolutely; was it our goal to win a state championship, absolutely.”

We didn’t get there, we didn’t accomplish that goal; but we accomplished so much. I enjoyed watching them; those kids, I love them so much, I don’t have kids, those kids, they’re all my kids and I love them, they’ve earned so much the last two years,” an emotional Coach Miller explained.

Despite the fact that Frankfort played in the state title game, it wasn’t the title game, a 5-2 loss that will be the game most remembered from 2019’s state tournament. Instead, the state semi-final 3-2 victory over Scott will be long remembered by those in attendance or viewing on MetroNews as perhaps the best, most dramatic at least, high school game they have ever witnessed. The game literally had everything.

Frankfort was originally slated to play Scott in the semi-finals on Thursday, that game got moved to Friday at 12:00.  It would begin on time, but when the rain rolled in, play would be suspended at 1:17, and not resume again for another six hours.  The game would conclude some eight hours and 17 minutes later with a Frankfort victory.

In Scott, Frankfort faced an opponent that put WVU-bound Carter Lyles on the mound, a powerful pitcher with an 89 mile per hour fastball and a repertoire of pitches that had earned him a reputation of being among the best of the best in the Mountain State. Make no mistake about it, Carter Lyles was the talk of the tournament, and he showed that he was in fact as good as advertised.  

But Frankfort put their own college-bound ace on the mound, Caleb Hare. Hare, bound for Concord University, and somewhat diminutive in stature, had earned the affectionate nickname “Troll.” Carter Lyles is 6’2” and weighs at least 230 pounds; Caleb Hare is not. Despite the difference in physical size, however, Hare’s skillset and drive made him just as important to the success of his team on the year and in this semi-final game as Lyles. Hare went toe to toe with the highly touted Lyles, and that includes their respective performances at the plate, in earning the 3-2 win for Frankfort.

Scott would get on the board first, scoring the first run of the game in the top of the third inning. Hunter Eplin opened the inning by reaching first base on a walk. Eplin was advanced to second base on an Aaron Eplin single and advanced to third after an error on an Isaac Miller bunt. Eplin would then score as Nathan Kuhn hit into a fielder’s choice, giving Scott the early 1-0 lead.  

After a scoreless bottom of the third and fourth innings, play was suspended due to rain with Scott clinging to the 1-0 lead heading into the fifth inning. At the time the game was halted, both pitchers, Lyles and Hare, had thrown the exact amount of pitches, 60. There was a great deal of speculation over the next six hours as to whether Lyles and Hare would resume play on the mound after the lengthy delay.  As play resumed, after much speculation and drama, it would in fact be the two aces that would resume pitching.

After a scoreless fifth inning, Frankfort would rally to tie the game at one run apiece in the sixth inning.  With one out, Caleb Hare would reach second base on an error. Hare would then steal a base to put himself on third with Chandler Rhodes at the plate. Rhodes responded by hitting a fly ball to right field to score Hare, who had tagged up from third, tying the game 1-1.

At the conclusion of seven innings of regulation play, and with both starting pitchers still on the mound, the game entered extra innings.  

That’s when Scott’s Carter Lyles decided to do damage from the plate, not just the mound. With one out and runners on first and second, Lyles blasted a deep shot over the center fielder’s head to score Aaron Eplin and reach third base with a triple; Nathan Kuhn was thrown out at home while attempting to score. Scott led at this point 2-1 in the top of the eighth inning.

When Frankfort came to the plate in the bottom of the eight, their backs were absolutely against the wall. Things got even worse for the Falcons as the first two batters struck out giving the Falcons two outs. Then the magic happened. With two outs, senior Zack Whitacre singled with a hard ground ball hit to center field. At the same time, Scott’s Lyles had expended his allotted pitch count and was forced to leave the game, after throwing 14 strikeouts and limiting the Falcons to just two hits in almost eight full innings of work.

With the new pitcher on the mound, Whitacre stole second base for the Falcons. Caleb Hare then hit a ground ball to Carter Lyles who was moved to third base from the mound; Lyles would sail the throw away from the first baseman, scoring Whitacre from second to tie the game 2-2. Hare promptly stole second base, but the magic wasn’t over.  Senior Chandler Rhodes then stepped to the plate, and with two outs, hit a shot to left field that was mishandled by the left fielder, scoring Hare from second base to give the Falcons the thrilling, 3-2, walk-off victory.

“Well I said the same thing last week at Fairmont that I’ll say tonight, I knew that if we could just get Zack (Whitacre) and Caleb (Hare) up in the top of the order we’d have a shot.  And, they came through, and that’s what they did all year for us. Then Chandler hit a deep fly ball there that the kid mishandled and gave us a break, and we win the game,” an excited Coach Miller said one year ago after the game.

Bridgeport jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the state championship game. Frankfort fought hard to claw themselves back into contention, but it was too little, too late, as Bridgeport earned the 5-2 win.

“They made plays; that team over there (Bridgeport) earned the game today; they hit the ball where we weren’t; nobody hit the ball hard pretty much all day; the balls that were hit were just hit em’ where they ain’t. They found more holes than we did, they earned the championship today; they beat us fair and square. Our guys battled, they didn’t quit, we aren’t going to quit, that’s not who they are,” Coach Miller said after the state title game.

Frankfort Coach Matt Miller made it perfectly clear at the beginning of the 2019 season that he fully expected to be in Charleston at the end of the year competing for a championship.  That’s exactly where the Falcons ended up.  They made the most of their time in Charleston, electrifying an entire state with their dramatic semi-final win over Scott and giving their all against the Bridgeport dynasty in the title game.  

“Last year (2019) was a tremendous ride. We had great chemistry with tremendous senior leadership. But a lot of our current juniors and seniors were an important part of the team. For Brendan (Whiteman), Damon (Spencer), Mason (Davis) and Greg (McCoy) not to get this opportunity to lead this year’s team is definitely disappointing. Our returning players worked so hard since last June, we had players lifting at 6:30 in the morning because they had another sport practice after school,” Miller explained.

Unlike the majority of the Flashback Friday articles which dipped back to 1976, 1978, 1984 and 2015, this article doesn’t require us to dip too far back into the memory bank as the action happened literally only one year ago, almost to the day. The storyline, in terms of memorable action, however, packs quite a punch.