Pitching, hitting, defense, team chemistry ... this baseball team had it all.
Twenty years ago Carl Junction High School made a run to the Class 3A state championship game, but the Bulldogs fell to Jefferson City Helias 6-1 on June 3, 2000, in Columbia at the University of Missouri's Simmons Field.
"That (2000) team was just special," said former coach Phil Cook, who is now the school superintendent. "It was .375 as a team batting average. Our pitching was awesome. I think Ryan Sheffield had back-to-back no-hitters at one point of the season, and, of course, Danny Powers was one of the best pitchers in the entire state.
"We were just solid. There wasn't an easy out with our batting lineup. Every time one of them came up, you knew they had the opportunity to do something special. Defensively I don't remember us having very many errors."
The Bulldogs went 24-5, and 20 years later their .375 team batting average remains the school record. The 2000 Bulldogs also still hold records for runs (296), doubles (64), triples (20), slugging percentage (.547) and on-base percentage (.478).
Individually, Powers' 11-1 record is the record for wins, and Sheffield holds the record with eight triples and is tied for third with eight wins. And talk about run production, Matt Mesplay (36), Curtis McDaniel (35) and Powers (33) rank 3-4-5 in single-season runs batted in.
"That was a good mix of kids by grade level," Cook said. "We had a really strong senior class with Jordan Hackney at shortstop, Curtis McDaniel at first baseman, Tyler Morris at outfield and pitcher, Trey Hance in right field. The junior class was 'the' class with Danny and Ryan Sheffield as pitchers — they are both teaching at Neosho now. Kevin Kubik played third base, Wes Smith was at second base, Heath Crowder was the DH, Matt Mesplay was the catcher.
"They were baseball smart and they just got smarter and smarter when it came to baseball. They all got along great. The parents all got along great, and in the summer Charlie Long was there to help coach those kids (in the American Legion season) and help them grow."
The Bulldogs defeated McDonald County 12-3 in the district championship game, breaking the game open with a seven-run sixth inning to avenge a regular-season loss.
Carl Junction avenged another loss to open state play with a 4-1 victory over Cassville as Sheffield had two hits and two RBI.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs upended No. 2 Marshfield 6-3 in the quarterfinal game at Carthage. McDaniel went 3 for 4 with two RBI and two runs scored, and Powers got the win and struck out six batters, none bigger than the one against Nathan Dunn, who had 16 home runs that season, with two runners on base.
The Bulldogs beat Francis Howell Central 6-3 in the semifinals. Powers tossed a seven-hitter and fanned six to get the win, and Kubic hit a two-run double in the sixth inning.
However, Helias' pitching silenced the Bulldogs in the championship game as Brad Bowman fanned 10 in six scoreless innings and Sam LeCure pitched the seventh, allowing a run when McDaniel walked, moved to third on Morris' single and scored on Kubik's sacrifice fly.
LeCure later pitched at Texas, going 9-3 as a sophomore when the Longhorns finished second to Cal State Fullerton at the College World Series, and appeared in 250 games for the Cincinnati Reds from 2010-15.
Cook vividly remembers the strong community support for the Bulldogs.
"It was really fun how crazy the Carl Junction community went during that time," he said. "The town went nuts. We were at Columbia, and we took so many people there. It was pretty awesome. It would have been the same way this spring with our girls basketball team if the (coronavirus) wouldn't have hit."
It also was Cook's last game as baseball coach as he moved into administration.
"I love what I do now, but it's a different kind of love," Cook said. "That was a special time for me. I owe a lot to the game of baseball. It helped pay my way through college. It taught me leadership skills. It gave me the opportunity to get a job. I'm not sure I would have gotten some of the jobs I got if I wasn't a baseball coach."
Cook compiled a remarkable postseason record as a player and coach. He played on four regional championship teams at Baxter Springs (1984-87). Then as a coach, his teams won five district titles in as many years at Fairland and two in three years at Carl Junction. All totaled, that's 11 championships in 12 years.
Those teams had one thing in common.
"My first nine years, as a player at Baxter Springs and a coach at Fairland, the team I was associated with wore red shoes," Cook said. "When I came to Carl Junction, I said we're wearing red shoes, and that's what we wore the three years I was there. Those red shoes were lucky to me.
"I played with some really good players at Baxter and I coached some really good players. They were great players and great kids, and I still stay in touch with most all of them. I loved that time."