LEXINGTON, Ky. – Cocky and out of shape as a freshman at St. Xavier High School, Connor Holden got cut from the baseball team and faced an uncertain future.
“He was just annoying, ran his mouth,” Tigers coach Andy Porta said. “Coaches didn’t like him. Players didn’t like him.”
Two years later, a new-look Holden reached hero status.
The junior right-hander tossed a three-hit shutout and struck out eight and Casey Simon provided the offense with his first home run of the season as the Tigers beat Campbell County 1-0 in the championship game of the Rawlings/KHSAA State Tournament.
A crowd of 2,637 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark saw the Tigers (29-12) capture their seventh state baseball title – breaking a tie with Manual and Owensboro for the most in state history – and second in three years.
Senior pitchers Daniel Fischer and Adam Elliott – both University of Louisville signees – anchored the Tigers’ postseason run, but Holden and Simon were the stars Saturday night.
Holden (6-1) hadn’t pitched in a varsity game since May 24, when the Tigers defeated Male 5-2 in the 26th District final. But with Fischer and Elliott both ineligible after pitching in Friday’s 3-2 semifinal victory over McCracken County, Holden got the call in the championship game.
“I knew my time would come,” he said. “I didn’t want to overthink it. I was nervous, but I had to keep a level head.”
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Porta said he wasn’t surprised by Holden’s stellar performance, especially given the work he had put in to make the team after getting cut as a freshman.
“He came back a gentleman, worked his tail off, decided to be a pitcher,” Porta said. “And his future is bright. It’s a great story for him.”
He had to escape big trouble in the top of the first inning after Colton Hartig reached on an error, Cory Franzen singled and Connor Walsh walked.
Carson Plessinger followed with a chopper up the middle that the 6-foot-4 Holden snagged to start a 1-2-3 double play that ended the inning.
“That’s baseball, a game of inches,” said Campbell County coach Scott Schweitzer, whose team finished 29-11 after reaching the state final for the first time. “He drove the ball up the middle, and you can’t ask anything more out of a kid.”
Hartig (6-4) nearly matched Holden pitch for pitch but made one big mistake in the bottom of the third. After falling behind Simon 2-0, Hartig grooved a fastball that Simon didn’t miss, crushing it into the bleachers in left field to give the Tigers a 1-0 lead.
“I didn’t know I had it in me,” said Simon, who said he might try to play club baseball as a freshman at the University of Virginia in the fall. “I was just hoping to go to second and maybe stretch a triple out of it. I haven’t been hitting very well this tournament, and I decided I needed to get a little more aggressive.”
It was all the offense St. X would need, as Holden retired 10 straight Campbell County batters during one stretch. Walsh led off the seventh inning with a single and moved to third after a sacrifice bunt and a groundout. But Holden struck out Joe Eblin to end the swift 91-minute game and spark a Tigers dog pile near the pitching mound.
For Holden, it was a bit of redemption after the disappointment of his freshman season.
“The hardest thing was telling everybody I got cut,” he said. “It was repetitive, over and over again, that I wasn’t good enough. It took a couple of months to get the mind-set that I was cut and not playing baseball. Then I made the decision that I don’t want to have that feeling again. The hard work pays off.”
The victory capped an impressive state tournament run for the Tigers, who beat No. 1 Greenup County 4-2 in the first round, 2015 state champion West Jessamine 3-2 in the quarterfinals and No. 2 McCracken County in the semifinals.
And there was plenty of drama, including Sam Mudd’s walk-off homer (his first of the season) to beat West Jessamine and freshman Cam Scheler’s walk-off double to defeat McCracken County.
And then the final chapters from Holden and Simon.
“That just shows what a weird sport baseball is,” Simon said. “You can never count anyone out. It shows how special this group of guys is. … I’m just so happy I could be a part of it.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and email@example.com.
CAMPBELL COUNTY 000 000 0 – 0 3 1
ST. XAVIER 001 000 x – 1 5 1
WP – Connor Holden (6-1). LP – Colton Hartig (6-4). HR – Casey Simon (SX). 2B – Dalton Dedas (SX), Zeke Porta (SX).
All-tournament team – Connor Holden, Daniel Fischer (St. Xavier); Alex Franzen, Matt Reynolds, Connor Walsh (Campbell County); Kyle McKinley, Garrett Wilson (Bullitt East); Caleb Reinhardt, Ian Walters (McCracken County); Griffin Wells (Hazard); Kendall Covington (Scott County); Braxton Kelly (Johnson Central); Ryan Layne (West Jessamine).
Most Outstanding Player – Adam Elliott (St. Xavier).