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Destiny foretold

Panthers sweep Cherokee Bluff to win second state championship
Panthers+dog+pile+after+winning+the+state+championship+against+Cherokee+Bluff.+This+is+the+second+state+championship+in+school+history%2C+the+first+being+in+2021.
Adeline Harper
Panthers dog pile after winning the state championship against Cherokee Bluff. This is the second state championship in school history, the first being in 2021.

Anyone who knows Panther baseball for the past five years knows that this year’s state championship is no surprise. It was foretold that the Panthers would come out on top. 

This senior class propelled the Panthers to a second state championship and the best season in Starr’s Mill baseball history with a record of 33-2. Seniors Cole Manetti, Jack Ryan, Bo Walker, and Charlie Clem played in the Little League World Series brought a unique edge to the team.

“[The student section] keeps us going. If we’re down, they pick us up,” senior Max Prozny said. “We go to their games throughout the year, basketball, football, whatever, and we appreciate all the support when it comes to our sport.” (Adeline Harper)

Seniors who were on the 2021 state champion team like Heath Whitlock, who actually pitched in that series as a freshman, brought experience that helped them lead the team to victory.

“This is probably the best team I’ve ever had,” head coach Brent Moseley said. “When you go with pitching, when you go with hitting, you go with speed, you go with fielding, I mean this team is very, very special.”

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Starr’s Mill swept a Cherokee Bluff Bears team who was playing in its first state championship. The inexperience of Cherokee Bluff, a school that played its first season of baseball in 2019, faced an experienced, senior-led Panther team in the midst of its best overall season in school history. 

Since a lot of the Starr’s Mill seniors were on the 2021 team, they knew what it is like to be in a game like this and have been chasing that feeling and that win since freshman year.

“When I played freshman year, I didn’t really have any doubts. It was just me playing behind a whole bunch of seniors and just doing my job,” Whitlock said. “Now, senior year, I have a lot more responsibility and it’s been way more challenging, but I’ve accepted the challenge and just kept on going till the end.”

Senior pitcher Heath Whitlock poses after hitting a 3-run triple in the first game of the championship. The Panthers went on to mercy rule the Bears 11-1. (Adeline Harper)

During the first game, Cherokee Bluff scored their first and only run of the game in the first inning but the Panthers retaliated with a total of 11 runs and a mercy rule. A 7-run 5th inning all but secured the win thanks to a combination of singles and finally a 3-run triple by Whitlock. 

On the mound, Whitlock only allowed three hits and one run while striking out four batters over five innings. Sophomore Brock Rein closed out the game in the final inning giving up no hits and striking out two.

“This will definitely be with us for the rest of our lives, but I mean it’s only up from here,” Walker said. “We’ve got a special group of guys, we’ve got a bunch of athletes, just a bunch of studs, so it’s only up from here for these guys.”

The second game was a lot tighter and relied heavily on the Panther defense. The Bears again scored their first and only run of the game in the first inning but senior Drew Richardson doubled in the second bringing Walker home to tie the game. Senior Austin Sellers finalized the score in the fourth inning with another double bringing Walker home once again.

Seniors Bo Walker and Max Prozny talk in between games. Walker brought in three combined runs and Prozny caught the game-winning snag of game two. (Adeline Harper)

The Panthers had quite a few other scoring opportunities that were missed like in the fourth inning where bases were loaded with only one out. 

At the end, the game came down to which team had the best defense. Junior Kyle Rudolph only allowed one run, one hit and struck out four over five innings. Rein secured the win by only allowing two hits and zero runs while striking out four in the final two innings. The game-winning snag was secured by senior Max Prozny.

Starr’s Mill will lose 12 talented senior leaders who have become role models for the youth of the program and kids who will one day play Panther baseball.

“We were in their shoes before [kids who look up to them],” Richardson said. “We looked up to the older players like superheroes, so we just want to be role models and just keep playing good and playing the right way for them.”

The Panthers went completely undefeated in the playoffs and ended the year on a 15-game winning streak. They had a total record of 33-2 and outscored their opponents 339-52.

“State championship is something that you work for if you’re a high school athlete. It’s something you work for. It’s something you dream of. It’s something that you grow up watching on TV,” Walker said. “But just having a good group of guys to do it, just tops it off even more.”

This story was originally published on The Prowler on May 23, 2024.