Never-say-die Neosho: Panthers battled adversity it run to World Series
Most of the players on last year’s Neosho County (Kan.) Community College team are gone.
Their sophomore captain, and possibly best player, broke his hand 31 games into this season.
It seemed all was lost.
“We have very few (back from last year),” Neosho County coach Steve Murry said. “This was a team nobody expected this from. In fact, at the beginning of the year, we were left for dead. One of our best players broke his hand and was out for the year.”
Sophomore second baseman Matt Milner, who leads the team with a .388 batting average, broke his hand April 7.
The Panthers (35-25) lost seven of their next nine games.
“We couldn’t find an identity,” Murry said. “Our best player goes out and we were not home in April or May. We had to figure it out quick. At one point, it was iffy for us to make the playoffs.”
Murry juggled the lineup several times.
“We’d have one kid hit cleanup all weekend, then struggle, and we’d put him in the seven or eight hole,” Murry said. “I’ll say one thing, it’s a versatile group. There’s not one guy in there set to hit home runs or just bunt. They have all had their share of batting leadoff to cleanup to the nine hole.
“There’s a lot of good hitters, up and down the lineup. They all had their share of struggles and successes. For us, it was a different situation. They’ve all had a chance to be hero or a goat. They’ve all left their share of the bases loaded.”
Neosho County routed then-No. 1 Crowder (Mo.) College 11-0 on April 16. From there, the Panthers won eight of their final 12 regular-season games to finish sixth in Jayhawk Conference Eastern Division and squeeze into the Region XI tournament.
“We realized we could be a good club,” Murry said. “We got timely hitting. Things started to click.”
Pitching carried Neosho County in the region and Central District tournaments. Chance Sinclair, John Furlong and Jake Johnson combined to pitch six complete games in the Panthers’ seven tournament games.
Neosho County plays seven-inning games during the season and nine-inning games in the postseason.
Chance Sinclair (9-2, 2.13 ERA) threw three complete games, including one on short rest in the 7-3 district championship victory over Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College.
Jon Furlong (7-3) and Jake Johnson (4-6) each pitched two complete games.
“Furlong had three bad outings in a row (earlier in the season),” Murry said. “A lot of it was his head getting in the way of pitching.
“Johnson was not in the line of fire enough, but he’s gotten nothing but better as he’s gone on.”
As a result, the Panthers are making their second consecutive trip to the World Series and third in the program’s history. Neosho made its first trip in 2003.
“We’ve been telling them all year what a special experience it is,” Murry said. “The kids probably got tired of hearing it. All of a sudden became a reality.”
The Panthers might have Milner back in the lineup, too.
“We wouldn’t care if he was our designated hitter,” Murry said. “Milner was far and away our best hitter. When he was in there, he got it done routinely.”