(photo by Kyle Carter, Staff)
COLUMBIA - The Class 3A Final Four will kick things off on Friday with two semifinal games.
The Sikeston Bulldogs, which took second in last year's state playoffs, will play St. Mary's in a Class 3A semifinal matchup on Friday at 11 a.m. at the University of Missouri's Taylor Stadium in Columbia.
Ozark (21-8) and Platte County (22-3) will play in the other semifinal game immediately following.
St. Mary's enters the game with an 18-5 record, having defeated St. Charles West 3-0 and MICDS 10-6 in the playoffs. Three of the Dragons' five losses came in the first three games of the year.
The Bulldogs (21-2) have won 16 in a row and defeated North County 2-1 and Pacific 6-0 in the playoffs.
St. Mary's is an all-boys Catholic school in St. Louis with an enrollment of 512.
The Dragons have reached the Final Four three times with the last coming in 1978 when they took third. They reached the championship game in 1950 and 1956 but came in second both times.
St. Mary's actually won a Class 2A state championship in 1997 but later forfeited due to the use of an ineligible player. So the Dragons' playoff run that year has been purged from the records.
St. Mary's reached the 3A Quarterfinals last year before falling to eventual state champion Jefferson City Helias 1-0.
The Dragons have won three straight district titles and four of the last five.
Sikeston has reached the Final Four seven times but they have never won the championship. They have twice finished second.
The Bulldogs have won two straight district titles and three out of the last five.
Sikeston enters the game battle-tested, with victories over the No. 1, No. 3 and No. 6 ranked teams in Class 3A. The win over North County, which went 12 innings, ranks as the second longest game in Missouri playoff history. The 10-inning district victory against Kennett is tied for the fourth longest.
"I think each game we've played has helped us," said Sikeston head coach Kevin Self. "The Kennett game helped us immensely to be able to handle the North County game. And I think the North County game helped us get to where we're at now. There's no doubt that those were two tough, drawn out, long, strenuous, pressure-filled ballgames."
But St. Mary's is a private school, and the Bulldogs have had their problems with private schools in the past. In 1998, Sikeston fell to eventual Class 4A state champion Chaminade in the quarterfinals 4-2.
And last year they fell to private school Helias 13-3 in the title game.
But at this point, Self doesn't care who the opponent is.
"I'm a firm believer that if kids can play then they'll play," said Self. "If they've played well all year then they should play well at the Final Four. I feel extremely good with how we're playing right now. We're playing our best defensive baseball right now. It was evident in the catches, we're backing up throws, we're doing all the little things because they're seeing it pay off. And our outfield is playing extremely well. I don't know much about (St. Mary's) but they deserve to be here just like we do. I would expect them to be extremely good."
St. Mary's has three capable starting pitchers. The most notable is 6-foot-4 junior southpaw Ron Martin, who struck out 19 batters against St. Charles West. And he picked off a runner to account for 20 of the team's 21 outs.
Martin is 5-0 on the season with 90 strikeouts in 44 innings with an ERA of 1.26.
Six-foot-seven senior Nick Badalamenti (5-1, 1.70 ERA) and Josh Morgan (2-2, 22 strikeouts in 13 innings) could also start for the Dragons.
"Like any team that's in the Final Four, you've got to have some pitching and people that can throw strikes and move the ball around and keep them guessing," said St. Mary's head coach Joe Wessels. "I'm sure all four teams will be able to hit the ball. We don't have a lot of information on Sikeston, but we know that they're going to be a very good team. We know they just got done beating a very good Pacific team that was 20-1. We know that Sikeston is going to be tough and we're looking forward to playing such a fine team."
The Dragons feature a lineup with five seniors, four juniors and a sophomore. Statistically, Josh Morgan is the top hitter at .414 with six doubles, five triples and a home run. He also has 19 RBIs and 21 runs.
Tom Flesch is also hitting well with a .418 average. He has 12 RBIs and 23 runs.
Sikeston's lineup features three seniors, one junior and five sophomores.
Sophomore Blake DeWitt leads the Bulldogs with a .478 average. He also leads the team with 36 runs and is tied for the team lead with 31 RBIs. He also has eight doubles and six triples.
Senior Jamie Puckett is batting .448 with seven doubles and four home runs. He also has 26 RBIs and 29 runs scored with seven stolen bases.
Sophomore catcher Jacob Priday is the Bulldogs' other top hitter, batting .402 with 31 RBIs and 31 runs scored. He leads the team with 11 doubles and he has three triples and two home runs.
Sikeston's staff ERA is 1.47. Lance Rhodes is 6-0 with a 1.25 ERA in 50 1/3 innings. He has 50 strikeouts and 29 walks.
DeWitt is 8-0 on the year with a 1.62 ERA. He has 56 strikeouts and seven walks in 47 2/3 innings.
Chris Cota, who has limited action due to an injury, is back to full strength. He is 2-0 with a 0.37 ERA in 19 innings.
Puckett could pitch in a pinch. He is 1-1 with a 2.29 ERA in eight innings this year.
"I think as a staff it's the lowest ERA I've had since I've been here," said Self. "And we're as deep as I've been. Last year we had the majority of our innings absorbed by Bobby (Landers) and Chris. This year, with Chris being hurt, we've had to develop more pitching. There are several guys that we can go to right now if one kid has a bad outing."
In last year's semifinal game against Branson, the Bulldogs came out of the gates on fire, spraying the ball all over the field against a highly touted pitcher. In that game, they tied a semifinal record with six doubles in a 14-4 win.
If last year has anything to do with it, Self doesn't expect his team to come out tight.
"Four of our kids started and played last year and there are two others that were on the club that are starting now," said Self. "They've been there and they know what kind of conditions they're going to play under and what kind of crowd is going to be there. But we've played in that kind of atmosphere this year. The stadium we've got holds a lot of people and in the state quarterfinal game against Pacific -- there were a lot of people there. So I think our kids will be ready to play."