By TYLER HENRY
Salina Post contributor
After punching their first-ever ticket to the 4A state tournament in 2022, the Abilene baseball team wasted no time at all securing a return trip, and will enter this year’s bracket as the 5-seed.
At 15-7, this year’s Cowboys have been eager to return to Salina since day one, as the program continues to soar to new heights.
“Going to state is the new expectation,” Abilene head coach Travis Bartley said. “We got there last year and we expected to get back here this year. The guys have all the confidence in the world and we want to make a deep run.”
While this year’s team has been led by several veteran returners from last year’s breakout squad, the 2023 rendition of the Cowboys is exceptionally young, with two sophomores and three freshmen in the starting lineup.
Thanks in part to that youth movement, Abilene got off to a bit of a lackadaisical start at 7-6, but after dropping a 1-0 pitcher's duel in Concordia something big clicked, and the Cowboys have won eight of nine ever since.
“We had some growing pains in the middle of the year but once we figured things out we could see things really start to come together,” Bartley said. “Going into regionals we had all the confidence in the world and a lot of our guys had been in those kinds of situations before.”
That confidence culminated in two tight wins at regionals last week, both of the 4-3 variety over Wellington and Circle, the latter of which saw the Cowboys walk things off on a suicide squeeze executed to perfection.
Now, Abilene will take their talents back to Salina, where a loaded field and a first-round matchup with 16-6 Fort Scott awaits them.
From top to bottom, this is a Cowboy team with the talent to make a deep run, perhaps best exemplified in a narrow 9-8 loss in extras with this year’s 1-seed in Clay Center earlier this year.
“We’ve had some really good kids come through here but I knew especially on the infield that we had one of the most talented groups as a whole that we’ve ever had here at Abilene,” he said. “We have 3-4 guys that we have a lot of confidence in on the mound and we’re pretty dang good 1-9.”
If that rotation can keep the ball in the zone, Abilene will buy its bats an opportunity to take the team where no Cowboy squad has ever gone before, and could even earn a rematch with a Clay Center team that sits on their side of the bracket.
“It’s cliche but our pitchers have to throw strikes to give us a chance, it’s as simple as that,” Bartley said. We have all the confidence in the world in our guys on the hill to get the job done and we trust in our defense behind them. If we can continue to do those two things we should be in every game and hopefully we can see our offense break out.”
First pitch between the Cowboys and Tigers is scheduled for 5:45 at Dean Evans Stadium in Salina this Thursday.
For continuing coverage of Abilene baseball all postseason long stay tuned to the Salina Post.