Entering the weekend’s Fayette County Invitational high school baseball showcase, No. 2 Danville had been on a tear.
As of Friday, the Admirals as a team led the state in batting average (.420), runs (272), hits (259), homers (52) and RBI (239). Their talented pitching staff was No. 1 in strikeouts (213) and No. 3 in earned run average (1.24).
“Out of all travel ball, high school ball, middle school, this is the funnest team I’ve ever played for,” said Ethan Wood, a Louisville commit who is second in the state with 11 homers. “Lots of home runs — I’ve never been part of a team that has sent so many balls flying. And we have fun, win or lose. OK, maybe not fun when we lose. But we have fun.”
What might be more amazing is that Danville (23-3), a small school with about 250 male students, has not just one, but four NCAA Division I baseball commits and more in the offing soon, according to Coach Paul Morse.
“Everybody knew we were going to have good pitching when the season started, but I think our hitting has surprised some teams and some people around the state,” said Morse, who has two 12th Region titles with Danville, the last in 2009. “It’s a solid team. From a talent standpoint, it’s the best I’ve had.”
Christian Howe, the Admirals’ Kentucky commit, is hitting a mind-blowing .546 and ranks No. 1 in the state in three categories with 12 home runs, 40 hits, and 47 RBI.
“If we’re playing good, I’m confident we can beat anybody, really,” Howe said “That’s what we’re trying to do at the end of the year. We think we could make a good run.”
Danville also boasts Marshall commit Brady Baxter and Eastern Kentucky commit Logan Smothers. Howe and Wood are seniors. Baxter and Smothers are juniors. And all of them can sling it.
Smothers leads the team with six wins and has a 1.09 ERA, Howe is 4-1 with a 0.63 ERA. Wood is 4-1 with a 1.88 ERA and Baxter is 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA. And we haven’t even mentioned junior Brady Morse, who is 5-1 with a 1.75 ERA.
That kind of quality pitching depth is especially unusual for a high school team and a big reason why Danville is so good. Pitching depth is especially important when playing multiple win-or-go-home games on consecutive days in the playoffs.
“They’ve got four D-I arms at the top of their staff and that’s something that can go a really long way toward being successful in the postseason,” said Prep Baseball Report’s Noah Gayheart, who was clocking Wood’s and Howe’s top fastballs at 92 and 89 mph, respectively, Saturday, in their loss to No. 7 St. Xavier at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. “That will allow you to give your players rest when they need it and still put a competitive team on the field.”
There’s no secret to how Danville has so many good players, Howe said.
“It’s a lot of practice,” he said. “It helps to know each other. We’ve all played together for years, so we’ve had each other’s backs and gotten each other to work harder and harder. That helps with getting better.”
Coach Morse agreed, noting that the attention his D-I commit players have been getting is also attracting recruiters’ eyes to his other players.
“They’ve made themselves into what they are and, as a coach, that’s gratifying to see,” Morse said. “If you’d have looked at this group when they were 8, 9 years old and said there was going to be six Division I players from that group, you would have been thought to be crazy.”
Danville was supposed to play St. Xavier on Friday night, but the preceding game between event host Paul Laurence Dunbar and West Jessamine went extra innings on a cold, wet evening and both coaches decided to postpone their matchup until Saturday rather than play in 40 degrees with sweeping rain until the wee hours of the night.
Danville topped Dunbar 11-4 in the first game back in Lexington on Saturday, but fell 3-2 to St. X after a 20-minute break. Against the Tigers, the Admirals gave up a single run in the third, fourth and fifth innings, two against Wood in his four innings, one of them unearned, and one against Howe.
Despite the 3-0 deficit, Danville battled. After stranding three runners in the sixth inning against St. X starter Samuel Thompson, the Admirals scored two runs against reliever Jake Gregor and had the tying run on third when Howe’s sharply hit ball to left field was caught for the third out.
“I really like the way our team competes,” said Coach Morse. “It doesn’t matter what the score is, they’re competing. They want to win.”
The loss is unlikely to shake Danville’s confidence. The Admirals’ only other losses have come to No. 10 Lexington Christian and Manual. All three of their losses were by one run. Meanwhile, Danville has beaten both No. 6 Frederick Douglass and No. 9 Lafayette.
There’s no pressure, Howe said, partly because the team as a whole has been playing so well.
“We’ve got guys where we don’t have to worry about what we do, individually. Everybody can perform, through the whole order and pitching,” Howe said. “We’re all kind of loose and that shows. We’re playing good and we’ve beaten good teams, and I think that will keep going.”