A subdued celebration set over Campbell Field in Clay Center Monday evening long before the final out was made.
The Junction City Blues had battled their way to a spot in the American Legion Zone Championship game and midway through the fourth inning, things were looking good. An eight-run lead heading into the bottom of the fourth ballooned to a 12-run lead over the Salina Eagles and every Blues player, fan and coach knew that after a 20-plus year drought, Junction City was headed to state.
“Our quote of the day was ‘close it out’,” head coach James Denton said. “We came here to take care of business. Since the spring season, I’ve been talking to these guys about 21 innings. It takes 21 innings to win a zone tournament and 21 innings to win a state tournament. We wanted 21 innings of great baseball and these guys came out here and prepared for greatness and they delivered.”
The Blues put the championship game into the hands of their top arm Levi Mehl and he delivered, going three and a third innings, allowing just one earned run on five hits and a walk with three strikeouts.
Mehl, who pitched the third-most innings during the 2021 high school season for the Blue Jays, has been stellar during the summer, racking up seven starts and a 2.38 ERA over 32.1 innings and Monday’s tournament closer was no different.
“The biggest thing with Levi is sometimes he puts too much pressure on himself and takes all of the game and today he came out and shoved,” Denton said. “He let his stuff work and he competed when he was down.”
The Blues, driven by a patient approach at the plate that saw 11 walks taken over four innings, reached that 10-run threshold that triggered the run-rule after the fourth and a gusty final inning and two-thirds from Griffin Bohanan secured the early end of the game and shiny new zone championship plaque. The 14-3 victory over the Salina Eagles (the second double-digit win over Salina in as many days) meant that, for the first time since the year 2000, Junction City would be heading to state.
“If six months ago you told me that these guys were going to go to the state tournament I would’ve told you that there’s still a lot of work left to do,” Denton said. “But they bust their butts every single day and the amount that they’ve grown is seen by me and other coaches in the state. Everybody is proud of these guys, they’re three-sport athletes who are in the weight room every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. They do things the right way.”
Michael Boganowski and Neil Crowley both had two hits to lead the Blues.
With the zone championship in hand, the Blues will try to continue their momentum at the Junior American Legion State Tournament in Salina starting on Wednesday.
The Blues will open up the tournament Wednesday afternoon versus the Overbrook Bombers at 1 p.m. and then will play Central-Burton at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday before wrapping up pool play on Friday versus the Salina Hawks at 6 p.m.
If the Blues finish in the top two of their pool, they will advance on to the semifinal rounds on Saturday where they’ll play at either 10 a.m. or 12:30 with the winners of those two games advancing to the state championship game at 3:30 p.m.
“They’ve got to stay up and just do what they do,” Denton said. “We talk about getting one percent better every day and that’s what I want to see. I want to keep seeing them in the weight room. Nothing changes for us. We have a championship mentality all day, every day and that’s what we want to bring.”