May 29—The final touches on Rock Creek's full-circle finish had to be performed by a captain.
So no, head coach Shane Sieben told the Mustangs' baseball managers, they could not empty the team's Gatorade cooler onto his head.
But when four-year starter Brooks Whaley, accompanied by fellow senior Connor Richards, hauled the bright orange, ice-filled elixir toward Mustangs' dugout, Sieben stepped forward, dug his heels in the dirt and hunched his shoulders to brace for the cold.
"This guy wasn't runnin' nowhere," Sieben said.
Rock Creek dumped a 14-run fourth inning on Anderson County during its 19-0 win in Friday's Class 3A state championship game at Tointon Family Stadium. Two years after losing 10-4 in the finals, the Mustangs' flipped the scoreboard.
And then some.
"This is a special group," said Sieben, who also coached the Mustangs to the 2015 state title. "They weren't going to be denied."
During a 31-minute top of the fourth, Rock Creek cycled through 18 batters who earned six hits while drawing eight walks and one base-by-bruise. Thirty-one minutes validated countless 7 a.m. alarms the Mustangs set for summer batting practice. And the sometimes four-plus hour practices they endured during the season. And the two-year wait through which they persevered to re-write their state tournament legacy.
Brooks Whaley, who played a prominent role on both teams, held the trophy first, and, despite his 5-foot-9 frame, he held it the highest.
"Words can't describe how good this feels," Whaley said. "There's no other way we thought we would go out. We knew this was coming."
Whaley, the Mustangs' leadoff stalwart, finished 2-for-2 with two walks and four runs scored in his final game at Rock Creek. Ben Wick, the senior third baseman, finished 2-for-3 with four RBIs, including the three-run triple that pushed Rock Creek over the 15-run-rule threshold in the fourth inning. And Daegan Vinduska, the freshman pitcher who started both the regional and state championship games, allowed two hits and one walk in four shut out innings.
Vinduska finished with zero strikeouts, but he didn't need any. He just needed to, as junior catcher Zac Becker told him before the game, "Act like we're playing catch, just me and you."
Becker started the Mustangs' championship pileup by tackling Vinduska onto the grass in front of the pitcher's mound. Then he, like many of his fellow Mustangs, hugged his teammates, his parents and his teammates' parents.
By the end, he was wiping tears from his eyes with the tennis-ball yellow fingernails he began painting after the Mustangs played Russell on March 30 (partially for luck, partially to help his pitchers see signs better).
"We got second two years ago, and I was bawling my eyes out," Becker said. "Now we won, and I'm still bawling my eyes out."
The Mustangs spent their afternoon "pigging out" at Rockin K's, which is owned by Sieben's brother, Scott. They gorged on barbecue pulled pork, chicken and macaroni and cheese while watching the SEC baseball tournament.
Whaley wanted to take a nap, but he was "too juiced" after Rock Creek beat No. 7 Minneapolis 8-3 in the state semifinals early Friday afternoon. Whaley allowed three runs (one earned) on two hits while striking out eight.
He issued of all three of his walks during the third and fourth innings, which he referred to as "sloppy," but steered clear of long rallies. He struck out Weston Schrader with runners on first and third to quell what already was a two-run sixth for the Lions.
"Good enough," Whaley said. "We made some huge plays when we needed it and kind of scrapped it out."
Whaley also accounted for two of Rock Creek's seven stolen bases against the Lions, which Whaley knows can drive a pitcher crazy. Rock Creek has yet to play team that can match its aggression on the base paths, but Whaley assumes he and the Mustangs must be a nightmare for opposing pitchers to monitor.
"It's chaos," he said. "You have to worry about us; you have to look at everybody. It's a pain in the (butt)."
The Mustangs supplemented their speed with timely hitting, particularly during their three-run fourth inning. After Brooks Whaley and Maddox Ibarra stole second and third base, Ethan Burgess doubled both of them home. And after Burgess stole third, Sturdy hit an infield single that scored Burgess and gave the Mustangs a 6-1 lead.
Rock Creek's opportunistic offense helped it overcome the trio of errors it committed on defense. Both of the runners that Minneapolis plated on Spencer Davidson's double in the sixth reached on errors. But like they did all season, the Mustangs answered with two insurance runs during their next at-bat.
The Mustangs' punch-back propensity fits the credo Sieben has been preaching all season: Event plus response equals outcome. Whether Rock Creek was beating Silver Lake — which swept the Mustangs in the regular season — in the regional title game, or erasing a five-run deficit in Thursday's quarterfinal, the Mustangs heard their coach's words in their head.
"You can't control the events that happen to you," Sieben said, says and will continue to say. "All you do is control your response. Our guys have big responses."
Friday evening capped the Mustangs' greatest response yet. Two years after stumbling at the worst possible moment, they dominated on the same stage.
If that is the only lesson Sieben taught his dozen seniors, he'll consider himself a success.
"These guys have been through so much," Sieben said. "They never backed down. They never let the moment get the best of them. It's like Brooksy said (Thursday): They're winners."