By most schools' standards, eight years isn't that long between state titles.
By Omaha Creighton Prep standards, it's an eternity.
“It's been too long since we've gotten that title at Prep,” senior outfielder Kevin Connolly said. “We want to go show what we're made of.”
The Junior Jays, ranked No. 1 in the Nebraska Top 10, will get that chance when the Class A double-elimination state baseball tournament begins Saturday at Sherman Field in Lincoln. Prep (29-3) will begin the quest for its first championship since 2004 when it plays Lincoln East in a first-round game at 10 a.m.
The Class B tournament also begins Saturday at 10 a.m. when South Sioux City plays Wahoo at Lincoln's Den Hartog Field.
Coach Pat Mooney's squad has been a model of consistency this season. The Junior Jays never lost two straight games and won 16 of their last 17, including a 12-1 victory against Lincoln Southeast in the district final.
Connolly, a Notre Dame recruit, has played a major role in that success. He is batting .416, with 36 RBIs and 30 runs scored.
“The season has really come together for us,” Connolly said. “We were afraid at the start of the season that we might not have the pitching, but those guys have done a great job.”
The return of 12 seniors has helped Prep achieve those 29 wins, and the development of the pitching staff — five players have at least four wins — has lifted the Junior Jays to the top of the ratings. Mooney's squad is also the top seed in the Class A portion of the eight-team tournament.
“I think our pitching has been better than expected,” the coach said. “We've got a lot of guys contributing, and that's always a big key heading to state.”
Prep's top hurlers are Taylor Elman (5-1, 1.50 ERA), Jeff Albrecht (5-0, 1.87), Adam Wilson (5-1, 1.85), McLaine Jonas (5-0, 2.07) and Mason Raburn (4-0, 0.64). Only Elman and Raburn are seniors.
But the Junior Jays also can hit, with five players — Elman, Connolly, Matt Kanger, Evan Ryan and Jon Hechtner — batting over .400. First baseman Kanger has a team-leading 37 RBIs and shortstop Hechtner leads the team with 40 runs scored.
“The thing I like is that we've gotten better as the season has gone along,” Mooney said. “We're more consistent with our hitting and our defense is improved.”
Mooney said the presence of those 12 seniors has been a big key to success.
“They don't get spooked too much,” he said. “They bring a lot of experience and they've helped with our younger guys.”
Connolly, who leads the team with five home runs, drilled a pair in Prep's district final win. He belted 10 homers last year to help the Junior Jays reach state for the 33rd time.
“I saw a lot of fastballs last year, and this year I've seen a lot more junk,” he said. “I've had to make some adjustments at the plate and I've tried to be more selective.”
Mooney said his center fielder is a threat whenever he steps into the batter's box.
“He's an exceptional player,” the coach said. “With his athleticism, he can take over a game.”
Mooney pointed to two examples of that athleticism that occurred during a recent week when Prep went 6-0 against tough competition.
“Kevin made one great throw to save one game and a great catch to help win another,” he said. “If we lose both of those games, maybe things don't go the way we had hoped down the stretch.”
The Junior Jays will have to overcome one unexpected hurdle in their quest for a ninth state title. Elman had his appendix removed May 1 and is easing back into the lineup.
“He played DH for us in the district final (last Monday),” Mooney said. “He's one of our best hitters and pitchers, so we'll just have to see how much he can play.”
The coach added that his team will be ready for its opener against Lincoln East, which lost to the Junior Jays 9-8 late in the season.
“I think the tournament field is a really strong one,” Mooney said. “Pretty close to the top eight teams in the state all made it, so it's going to be a battle no matter who you play.”
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