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Hard work pays off for Franklin with regional trip

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The Pacers aren’t the area’s only blue-collar team.

Meet high school baseball’s blue-collar squad, the Franklin Grizzly Cubs.

Talent and determination have propelled unranked Franklin (17-9) into today’s Class 4A Evansville Regional, where it faces No. 8 Jeffersonville (21-5) at noon (11 a.m. Evansville time) at Bosse Field.

No. 5 Bloomington North (25-4) and Evansville North (19-9) face off in the second game. The winners meet at 8 p.m. for the regional crown and a berth in the Final Four.

Franklin coach Paul Strack compared his squad’s grit with that of the Pacers when the Cubs started their postseason run.

“As the Pacers were battling the Heat in that first playoff game, I made that comparison,” Strack said. “They’re scrappy and play good defense. Wow, that’s a lot like us. We don’t have guys that are going to come out and carry us offensively as individuals, but we do things very well as a team. The Pacers are a lot the same.”

That team-first approach produced Franklin’s first Sectional title in 18 years, as well as Mid-State Conference and Johnson County Tournament titles this season.

In the process, the Grizzly Cubs flipped last year’s record with a team that starts only three seniors.

“We’re really scrappy, and we don’t like to lose,” said second baseman Max Hensley, who scored the go-ahead run in the sectional title game against Franklin Central. “The big factor this year is winning close ball games. Last year, we lost eight by two runs or less. This year, we figured out how to win big games.”

In tournament play, no game is bigger than the next one. The Red Devils present the toughest challenge to date, after knocking off No. 1 Floyd Central 5-0 to win their second straight sectional.

“They’ve got a couple of good arms, and their shortstop (Drew Ellis) is really good,” said senior catcher Anthony Mercer, who has played summer ball with several members of their team. “It will be tough. It will be a close one and low scoring, so we’ve just got to battle it out.”

Pitchers’ duel possible

The key may be on the mound, where each team features multiple starters with ERAs below 2.

For the Grizzly Cubs, senior ace Jeremy McKinney (8-2, 1.93 ERA) will take the mound. The right-hander, whose fastball reaches 90 mph, shut down the Flashes in a complete game for the sectional crown, 3-1. If the Red Devils follow their sectional rotation, they will send out Mark Meyer (5-2, 1.43 ERA).

“It’s going to be about our pitching versus their pitching and who can scrap a run across,” Strack said. “We’re going to have to play very good team offense and play good defense behind our pitchers to make sure that we limit mistakes as much as possible. We need to take advantage of free bases and make sure we can push a run across to win the ballgame.”

McKinney is Franklin’s Paul George, Strack said, going back to the Pacers analogy, “the guy who has to have a good game.”

In that case, it means the senior, who will play at the University of Cincinnati next year, will have to throw strikes. McKinney has an amazing 122 strikeouts in 69 innings.

“Jeremy is a workhorse,” Strack said. “He is a guy who wants the ball every single day regardless of how many pitches he thrown. We know Jeremy is going to attack hitters and try to get ahead with fastballs. He’s not afraid to throw a slider for a strike and use his changeup intermittently.

“Jeremy pounds the zone and gives our defense opportunities to make plays behind him. He’s a bulldog. There’s no other way to describe him. He loves to compete,” Strack said.

Second-baseman Hensley said it is easy to play behind McKinney and second starter Evan Giles.

“We don’t make many mistakes,” said Hensley, a senior, who has committed only three errors in 83 chances. “When we do, we are able to make up for it. Our really good pitching helps. It’s not hard to play good defense when your pitcher strikes out 10 every game.”

One key to that effective mound performance is senior catcher Mercer, who has committed to play at Wright State.

“Anthony is a tremendous leader,” Strack said. “He knew coming into this season that he was going to need to do that. He’s become more vocal. He does a really nice job of keeping guys calm on the field.

“He is our general when we are out there defensively. Before I can step out of the dugout, Anthony is three steps ahead of me and on his way to the mound. He understands the game. He’s an extremely smart baseball player, and we’re very fortunate to have him behind the plate as someone we can trust.”

Hitting makes a difference

For the pitchers, it is a matter of not overthinking and making the pitches that Mercer calls.

“It is just a matter of pitch and catch,” McKinney said. “Throw what he asks for and pitch to the glove.”

With solid pitching expected, Franklin’s hitting has been a difference maker this season.

“We really put a large emphasis on our offensive game,” first baseman Chris Fowler said. “We came out swinging this year. We knew we had good pitching, but we knew we weren’t going to win unless we could score runs. We put in lots of work on the offensive end. It shows this year.”

Mercer said, “We don’t have a guy that is going to hit .500 with 15 home runs.” Indeed, team leader Ross Barr has three. “It’s a group effort. You’ve got to find a way to get it done.”

The win over Franklin Central was an example, with the Grizzly Cubs hitting four timely doubles in a six-hit attack.

Giles and shortstop Jacob Baldridge lead the way at the top of order, both hitting over .350. Hensley and Barr also provide pop at the top of the lineup.

Patience as well as pop has been key to the offense. Franklin gets an average of four base runners per game via walks and hit batters.

The Grizzly Cubs take what they are given and produce runs, averaging more than 5½ a game.

Just as with the Pacers’ success, it is not just athletic ability, their coach says. Franklin’s turnaround is as much about what happens between the ears as between the lines.

“We set our goals high at the beginning of the season,” Strack said. “We knew we had some talent and guys on the squad who were willing to put in the work to prepare for this exact moment.

“It’s something that we as a coaching staff expected but weren’t quite sure that these guys expected of themselves. So we pushed them and continued to put pressure on them in practice. We just want to make them as well-prepared as we can.”

Changing the mindset

The renewed emphasis resonated with Mercer and other seniors.

“We talked about changing the mentality at the beginning of the year,” the catcher said. “It’s not just changing the record but changing the mental aspect. It’s not OK to get beat by a close score against a good team.”

So, as the Pacers try to knock off the Heat tonight, Franklin’s baseball team will be in Evansville trying to get to the Final Four for the first time since 1995.

“It is a fun comparison, Strack said. “We’re both in the playoffs. They’re facing a very good team in the Heat, and we’re facing a very good team in Jeffersonville.

“Both our mentalities are that we are going to do what we do best. It doesn’t matter who you put in front of us. We’re going to play our game and force you to beat us.”

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