There was something poetic — and kind of heart-tugging — about what happened Tuesday afternoon at the state baseball tournament.
It didn’t happen on the baseball diamond at Lincoln’s Sherman Field, but rather near the parking lot. That was where the Millard West team bus found itself stuck after unsuccessfully negotiating a tight turn.
Watching the bus list there like the Titanic, it was indicative of how yet another baseball season ended on a sour note for the Wildcats.
It’s been well documented that Millard West has never won a state baseball title in the spring. Coach Frank Ryan has come painfully close to that championship in his 17 years as head coach — the Wildcats have finished as the state runner-up six times since 2000 — but something inevitably goes wrong at state.
It can be something small, such as an ill-timed walk in the championship game. Or it can be something big, such as what happened this season.
Millard West returned several players from last year’s squad that finished second to Papillion-La Vista South, and there was a feeling early on that this might indeed be the Wildcats’ year. They won their first 15 games and had the kind of pitching depth that opposing teams envy, but then things started to go wrong.
Ryan’s squad suffered its first loss to Lincoln Southwest in the final of the Millard West Invitational, a blow to a team that certainly didn’t want to drop the championship of its own tournament. Less than two weeks later, the Wildcats dropped consecutive games against Metro Conference foes Omaha Westside and Millard North.
Suddenly, that air of invincibility was gone.
After winning their next five, the Wildcats went 4-3 in their final seven games before state. That included a 4-0 loss to Lincoln East and another loss to the Spartans in the district final, played on Millard West’s home field.
But the news Ryan received after that district final setback was even worse. The Wildcats’ ace, Kansas State recruit Nate Griep, had suffered an arm injury and would be unable to pitch at the tournament.
Goodbye 8-1 record. Goodbye 1.62 ERA. Goodbye 58 strikeouts.
Millard West lost its first-round tournament game 3-1 Saturday against a surprising Lincoln Northeast squad, but staved off elimination with a compelling 7-6 win over Omaha Westside on Monday night. The Wildcats then were ousted from the double-elimination tournament Tuesday as Lincoln East rallied from a 6-2 deficit to win 7-6 in eight innings.
After Ryan spoke with his players following the game, the team stowed its gear and boarded the team bus. When that bus got stuck leaving the parking lot, it seemed to symbolize the frustration of a proud program that has been unable to get over that last bump.
Ryan, who was standing near the stranded bus, tried to remain upbeat despite another crushing end to a once promising season.
“We had our chances in that game, but we just didn’t get it done,’’ he said. “It’s kind of the way the second half of the season went for us.’’
When asked if he felt somehow jinxed at the state tournament, even Ryan said he wasn’t sure what to think.
“It’s hard telling,’’ he said. “It’s weird because we’ve had some things go wrong at state that you just wouldn’t expect. Kind of like what happened with Nate (Griep) this year. We didn’t see that coming.’’
With the bus still hopelessly stuck, the Millard West players removed their equipment and rode home with their parents. As the families drove away, the frustration was still etched on Ryan’s face.
“We just can’t seem to finish the deal,’’ he said. “Maybe it’ll be our turn next year.’’
Contact the writer: