Head Coach Brandon Dennis would be the first to tell you it was a long journey to get to this point as a team, but Apollo is playing its best baseball of the year and their first state tournament win in 12 years has them excited for the state quarterfinals and for the foreseeable future as a program.
The Eagles were having a solid season entering the postseason, going on to fall to Owensboro in the 9th District Championships before going to battle in the 3rd Region Tournament. It was there that it seemed like Apollo found new life offensively, picking things up through small ball.
Dennis said it was those little things that has led to big hits, something that the Eagles had been searching for at the plate for the majority of the season. That proved to be the case again on Thursday, when sophomore Sam Holder’s three-run triple was the deciding factor in their 3-0 state win over Beechwood.
“There’s one thing that’s changed,” Dennis said. “We were a pitching and defense team, but what we needed all year was timely hitting. We were not a timely hitting team until honestly the last week of the season… The last week of the season into the postseason we became a team that relied on pitching and strong defense and got timely hitting with runners in scoring position… To just be getting those hits now has made all the difference. It’s huge.”
Holder has played a key factor in that offense, moving up to the cleanup spot in the lineup for the Eagles as of the 3rd Region Tournament. Having come into this season recovering from a shoulder surgery, Dennis said that it took him some time, but the potential that they had seen all along is showing in games.
“He wasn’t even barreling up balls, but you could just tell by his swing and the way he moved that he was just an electric hitter,” Dennis said. “So coach Hicks and I, we had several conversations like ‘we know this kid is something special.’ He didn’t get off to a great start this year and we just had to keep working and pushing and he locked in. When he locked in, all things we thought we saw have fallen into place.”
Now he has come up with multiple clutch hits, driving in crucial runs for Apollo to continue their postseason run. The poise that he shows at the plate is something that Dennis and company are thrilled to have with the program for years to come.
“Talk about being cool as a cucumber in big situations,” Dennis said. “The last two games we’ve won in the fifth or sixth inning he has driven in the winning run. It’s like, what kind of sophomore does that? That’s a testament to who he is and we really look forward to not only seeing him the rest of this year, but seeing what happens for him the next couple of years.”
Junior Will Strode has also been a key cog in the Eagles offense, proving to be the best hitter on the team with a .370 batting average, seven home runs and 29 RBIs, but also being a strong arm on the mound when called upon. He was most recently called upon to grab a save in the state tournament win on Thursday, striking out .500 hitter Cameron Boyd to shut the door against Beechwood.
Having thrown just the one inning, Dennis will call on him to start against Lexington Catholic on Saturday—noting that getting Strode limited work to warm him up was the best thing they could’ve asked for.
“We just need him to be who he’s been all year long,” Dennis said. “That kid is a No.1 pitcher on a majority of the teams in the state. And we don’t view him as anything other than a No. 1 for us, but what it gives us is when you have two guys that are that strong at the top [it makes a difference]. Will is an unbelievable third baseman, so if we can get Noah out there and leave him at the corner and have strong defense for game one, we can get to game two and you still have what would be everybody’s ace to throw. I mean it can’t get any better.”
The win is a huge step forward for the program in Dennis’ first year as head coach, having accomplished something that hadn’t been done in a dozen years with the Eagles. He said that it’s a huge deal to Apollo baseball and the outpouring of support from alumni has made continuing to add to the Eagles rich history that much more enjoyable.
“People who have been connected to our program for years, guys that I’ve played with, guys that the team members of the coaching staff played with—we’re hearing from all of them,” Dennis said. “And they’re all so excited to see what these guys have been able to do. It means so much more to so many people because of the tradition and the legacy of this program. So to have the opportunity to ride that with these guys and get to see what they’ve been able to do has been unbelievable.”
The team has gotten countless videos from past players expressing their excitement about the team’s success, an experience that Dennis is thrilled to share with his team. And the team is hopeful to use this support as fuel to keep things rolling against a strong Lexington Catholic group at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, as a balanced roster in terms of experience has the Eagles poised for a strong future now and for years to come.
“It’s great to see all of these kids get this experience for the first time,” Dennis said. “All of them are getting it for the first time. But when you see some seniors that have been working their rear ends off and have come close to breaking through and they finally get it, that’s huge. The other exciting thing for us is that we have a couple of freshman and eighth graders—and the sophomores all play a key role—but to have those freshman and eighth graders that will be huge contributors next year and moving forward, to let them see what it’s like here, what’s expected and how you have to perform to be here, I think it’s going to be invaluable for us in continuing to build off this year in the best way possible.”