Elmore County Horseshoe Bend

Andy Anders / The Herald Elmore County junior Sean Darnell coasts into third base against Horseshoe Bend April 5.

Elmore County’s baseball program vaulted forward in 2021. 

The Panthers came within four victories of a program record with 22 wins and one tiebreaker loss against Holtville of capturing an area title.

Those strong achievements faded to mere husks in comparison to the team’s snap of its playoff drought, however.

Elmore County lost two tight tilts with Shelby County to end its run in the AHSAA playoffs before it began Friday, but after making its first postseason since 2013, there is nothing but excitement surrounding the program.

“It was two games that could have gone either way with one break here or there,” Elmore County head coach Michael Byrd said. “We just didn’t get any breaks. Both teams played hard. It was just two well-played games.”

Friday’s two contests were decided by a total of three runs.

Elmore County took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a Payton Hall single, but a two-out rally by the Wildcats in the bottom of that frame proved decisive.

Riley Lewter batted a run in on an error, and Matthew Pearson followed with a two-run single to put Shelby County ahead 3-1.

Three straight singles in the Panthers’ own two-out rally the following inning cut the advantage to 3-2, but Shelby County pitcher Connor Aderholt shut down Elmore County’s bats from there.

Sean Darnell threw six innings with three runs, none of them earned, in defeat.

Byrd admired the performance of his starting pitcher, but added the defense from both teams was fun to watch Friday.

“Both teams made a couple diving plays. I think there were eight double plays turned in two games,” Byrd said.

Hall delivered six strong innings on the mound in game two, surrendering three runs, two of them earned.

The Wildcats batted in runs off the hurler in innings one and two but the final four innings of his outing were scoreless, save for a runner that he left for relief pitcher Brandon White.

“[Hall] battled. He threw strikes, he threw three pitches for strikes,” Byrd said. “He just pounded the zone with strikes, changed speeds, forced ground balls and pop ups and got strikeouts when we needed them. We just didn’t get enough runs for him.”

Opening with the 2-0 deficit, Brody Ward walked, worked his way to third and scored on a passed ball to cut the lead to 2-1 for Elmore County.

The Panthers couldn’t manufacture any more runs, however.

Shelby County and Elmore County were both ranked in the top 10 of the ASWA’s Class 5A rankings. If it had better luck in drawing its opponent, Byrd said, his team might have made a run through a few payoff series.

Overall, however, he said the team’s accomplishments will resonate.

“The big thing was getting in the playoffs,” Byrd said. “With last year getting shut down — I think we were set to get in the playoffs. It was shut down, we didn’t get that chance. This was the year to start taking that next step.”

Hall, Darnell — who batted an Elmore-County-leading .545 this season — and multiple other key contributors will return for the Panthers in 2022.