Madison County might not be headed to the Elite Eight.
But it perhaps signified a return as one of the elite programs in the state.
After losing in the opening round of the state sectionals Friday, Madison County rallied for three-straight victories in the losers’ bracket Saturday, falling just one win shy of its first trip to the Columbus quarterfinals since 2002.
“It was a great day for our program,” coach Doug Kesler said. “I felt like we gained the respect back in the state that maybe we had let dwindle a little bit over the last couple of years.”
Madison County finishes at 24-11. The 24 wins are the most since 2003. The Raiders did so in a year where injuries were a constant.
“All the injuries we had to fight through this year, it seemed like we hardly ever had a full team healthy,” Kesler said.
Even at sectionals.
A few girls battled sickness while ace pitcher Megan Kesler dealt with wrist problems that affected her drop ball. That gave Erin Gibson — who ended up throwing 18 2/3 innings on Saturday — the starting nod for Madison County’s final three games.
Coach Kesler said that was Megan’s choice with the senior noting that Gibson had the hot hand.
“She said … ‘Erin’s hot. If she wants it, let her go,’” he said.
The Raiders opened with a 6-0 loss to Hillgrove Friday night, but staved off elimination the next morning by walloping North Springs, 9-1, and then knocking off Apalachee Saturday. The Raiders had lost three times to their region rivals this year, but Kesler made it clear in his pre-game talk that none of that mattered Saturday. Taking that to heart, Madison County responded with a long-awaited 3-2 win over the Wildcats.
“It was pretty sweet beating them in that situation,” Kesler said.
Madison County then downed Northwest Whitfield, 1-0, in a pitchers’ dual before falling to Sandy Creek, 5-1, in their fourth game of the day. “There at the end, we sort of gave out of gas, and we played a good team,” Kesler said.
The Raiders, a no. 4 seed, were the last region team left standing when they bowed out.
“As a coach, you always want to say you leave it all on the field,” Kesler said. “Well there’s no doubt that they did that.”
As for the Raiders’ final standing in the state, Kesler said one parent came to an interesting conclusion. When considering that two teams from the North and two from the South came one win shy of advancing to the Elite Eight in Columbus, Madison County finished tied for ninth in Class AAAA. Kesler might have left Woodstock without a berth to the state finals, but he left as one proud coach.
“I can’t say enough about (the team), sort of putting us back on the map and putting our program back up as, I feel, one of the elite programs in the state,” he said. “That’s what this group did for us.”