Not the J.J. Kelly Indians. Not a two-hour weather delay. Not even heart surgery could derail the legendary coach’s date with destiny.
Harding’s players made sure of that.
Chaz Miller bookended an eight-run third inning with a two-run home run and an RBI single before coming on to pitch the final three innings to help lead Honaker to a 16-9 victory over the Indians on Saturday.
“It means the world that I can help this team and do this for Coach Harding,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The Tigers’ victory sealed the first state baseball title in school history and the first for Harding, who has endured several near misses over the years.
Harding surprised many by showing up in his familiar No. 17 jersey during the top of the seventh inning just a day after undergoing heart surgery. But as he stood on the field after an emotional postgame celebration, he made it clear that staying in the hospital was not an option.
“I did a lot of begging and pleading and negotiating,” Harding said. “I’m not sure a threat went in with that, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
“I really wanted to get here at least at the finish. Whatever way it went, I wanted to be here with these kids when it ended.”
By the time Harding arrived on the scene, his team was well on its way to making history.
J.J. Kelly jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, but Honaker’s eight-run third spelled doom for the Indians.
Already short on pitching, Kelly coach Chad Longworth was forced to use three arms in the third frame alone. The Indians kept battling back, but they were never able to get the deficit to fewer than four runs.
“We gutted it out with our pitching the last bit of the year. It may have caught up with us a little bit,” Longworth said. “But we didn’t quit. If we were going to go down, we were going to go down fighting.
“That’s kind of been our attitude the whole time.”
When Harding showed up in the press box during the seventh, he was greeted by an emotional standing ovation from fans, players and coaches on both sides.
But before the Tigers could take the field and record the final three outs, a lightning delay halted the game for two hours.
For Honaker coach Alex Zachwieja, who was running the team in Harding’s absence, the delay posed the biggest challenge of the weekend.
“Everybody was wanting to come up and congratulate us even though the job wasn’t done,” Zachwieja said. “We came up here with a business-like attitude and knew we needed to win two games.
“To be three outs away from finishing the game, that was the toughest thing.”
But after the rain passed and the field was groomed, Miller came back out, recorded the final three outs and set off a wild celebration that culminated with Harding hoisting the state championship trophy at long last.
“It was a whole lot better to present him the trophy than to bring it home to him,” Miller said.
Saturday’s game marked the end of the road for a J.J. Kelly program that won nine state titles. The Indians will merge with Pound to form Wise Central next season.
Nick Sturgill drilled a three-run homer for the Indians (22-7) and Zack Stidham drove in three runs with a triple. Christian Kunce and Israel Bolling added an RBI each for Kelly.
Payton Ball tripled twice and drove in a pair of runs for Honaker (24-3). Austin Kiser had a three-run triple, Jordon Dye doubled three times and Jordan Hess drove in three runs.
Derrick Murphy threw four solid innings to earn the win.
With his goal of a state championship finally reached, Harding said he was in awe of the five seniors who led the Tigers to the promised land.
“The things they’ve done at this school, I don’t know how you say enough about it,” he said. “They’ve gotten us to this point here, and what more can you ask than that?”