FRANKTON — Were it not for the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend would have featured the IHSAA state softball championship games in West Lafayette. While several THB Sports area teams harbored hopes of making that trek in 2020, there was one area team that lived the dream 20 years ago, next week.

Led by a passionate young coach, a dominant pitcher and an airtight defense, the Frankton softball team had already made school history when it advanced to the 2000 Class 1A state final four, winning close game after close game along the way.

A Friday night rainout hit the pause button on the Eagles, but the juggernaut would not be denied on a Saturday evening at the Hamilton Southeastern field in Fishers as first-year head coach Jeremy Parker, star pitcher Casey Clutch and the Eagles won a pair of games in their usual nail-biting fashion and brought home the school’s first state championship in any sport.

NEW MAN IN CHARGE

Playing for a new coach was nothing new for Clutch. Parker was her third in as many seasons at Frankton as she prepared for her junior campaign. His was not an unfamiliar face, having been an assistant the previous season and having coached many of the players on the middle school basketball team.

While she was a bit wary of a new voice in charge of the dugout, Clutch appreciated the energy and enthusiasm the 27-year-old brought to the team.

“At that point, as a junior and it’s your third coach, (I thought) ‘All right, let’s go, guys. We’re going to focus on what we need to do and let him coach,’” she said. “I always liked him. I liked his enthusiasm. I am definitely an intense player, so I liked having that intensity as well.”

For his debut season, Parker inherited a team that had just three seniors on the roster and, early on, his own youth became a topic for scrutiny.

“I had a lot of expectations,” he said. “I was up for the challenge. My first parent meeting, and this is a true story, I had a parent ask how I was qualified to be a head coach. I was 27 years old and was pretty young to take over as coach of an elite program. … I knew that I had my hands full. I was young. I was very gung-ho.”

Any questions about his qualifications faded quickly as the Eagles started the year with an 11-game winning streak, which included 1-0 wins over powerhouses Eastern and Mount Vernon.

It was the win over the Marauders — in the sixth game of the season — that made Parker realize his team had an opportunity for a great season.

“When we played Mount Vernon, they had Shelli Messer, who was going on a full ride to Purdue,” Parker said. “I knew from that point on we had something pretty special if Casey could shut down a big school like that.”

Mount Vernon went on to win the 2A state title, with the loss to the Eagles as the only blemish on its 29-1 season.

BUILDING MOMENTUM

In 2000, those 1-0 wins were more the norm for the Eagles than the exception. Frankton scored four runs or less in 15 of its 29 wins, and just 18 runners crossed the plate against the Eagles for the entire campaign.

The obvious reason for that success was the dominant pitching of Clutch, who went on to pitch at the University of Evansville and was a former pitching coach at Butler University.

Now married, Casey Clutch Creakbaum is the owner and pitching instructor at Clutch Athletic Performance in Anderson, tutoring the arms of softball pitchers in the area, including Jordan Benefiel of Pendleton Heights and Alaina Meeker of Daleville.

Her pitching statistics in 2000 were simply gaudy.

She posted a 24-1 record with an ERA of 0.24, having allowed just six earned runs in 174 innings. She completed all 25 of her starts and struck out 359 batters — better than two per inning — while surrendering just 48 hits and 18 walks.

“Our girls bought in back then,” Parker said. “They knew that, with Casey on the mound, we didn’t have to score four or five runs a game. If we could squeak two runs in, we could pretty much win any game that we played.”

Behind Clutch was a defense that took care of its responsibilities. Parker said the team committed just eight errors, causing the pitching staff to yield just four unearned runs.

“It’s huge having a defense when you’re out there that you trust as a pitcher,” Clutch said. “It allowed me to throw and attack. … Being an aggressive pitcher and knowing that my defense had my back, that was huge for me.”

“Our defense was really, really good that year,” Parker said. “We worked really hard on that because the few opportunities we would get, we didn’t want to give runs away. … I told them we only have to make seven or eight plays per game. If you only get eight chances and you commit one error per game, that’s not a good percentage.”

In the sectional at Tri-Central, Frankton rolled past Sheridan and Rossville 7-0 and 8-0, respectively, before taking on Clinton Prairie. The Eagles avenged their 1999 title game loss to the Gophers with a 2-1 win, securing the seventh softball sectional title for Frankton.

Advancing to the regional meant a rematch with Eastern on its home field in a game that featured the play Clutch said made her realize her team was going to win the state championship.

NO. 22

The regional was loaded that year, featuring three teams — Frankton, Eastern and Eastside — ranked in the top five, with the Eagles having to face the host Comets in the morning game. Parker said there were several strong hitters in the Eastern lineup they were trying to be careful with and avoid that one big mistake.

“We knew we weren’t going to score a lot of runs off their pitcher, and I think they thought the same thing of us,” Parker said. “It was going to be a low-scoring affair.”

In a scoreless game — neither Parker nor Clutch can remember exactly which inning — the Comets had their best opportunity. With runners on base, a ball was launched toward the outfield that seemed destined to put the home team in the driver’s seat.

But sophomore left fielder Kaci Brummett was equal to the task, flashing the defensive leather that helped carry Frankton to this point. She made the catch to keep Eastern off the board, much to the delight of Clutch.

“She made an amazing play. She went all out,” Clutch said. “If she wouldn’t have caught it, runs were going to score. There were two outs and a runner on second, and she just went all out after the ball. To be honest, her tracking a fly ball wasn’t always the greatest, but she got this ball. You could tell at that moment that this whole team felt like we had this. She just laid out and made a great catch. I was so proud of Kaci Brummett.”

“Kaci made a big play. I do remember that,” Parker said. “We were on their field, and that was a great environment to play in for a first-year coach. Yeah, that was exciting. … If Kaci doesn’t catch that ball, maybe we’re down 2-1 or 2-0 at that time.”

Brummett hit .260 with 10 RBI that season, not realizing she was nearing the end of her athletic career. Prior to her senior season, she was diagnosed with cancer, a disease which eventually took her life at the age of 21 just a few years later.

Parker became emotional as he remembered Brummett, even while wearing a bandana to conceal the effects of her treatment, was always by the team’s side during her senior year.

“Brings a little tear to my eye,” Parker said. “I spoke at her funeral, and she’s the only player that I’ve ever coached who passed away like that. I grew up a lot as a coach after a few years. That put in perspective the relationship that I develop with players over the years. We stayed in touch a lot when she was sick. For two or three years, she would come around when she could.

“It was pretty special, and I’m glad that those girls bonded so much. It was a top-notch group.”

During her career at Evansville, Clutch drew Brummett’s uniform No. 22 in the dirt near the mound to pay honor to her fallen comrade.

“Once a teammate, always a teammate,” Clutch said.

ONE DAY DOMINANCE

In 2000, the state finals required a semifinal win Friday followed by the championship game Saturday. But, due to rain, the Friday session was washed out, meaning the Eagles had to win both games in one day.

And Clutch did more than rise to the occasion on a day Frankton twice needed extra innings to bring home the state title.

In the first game, she scored the go-ahead run and struck out 21 of the 29 batters she faced as the Eagles posted a 2-0 win over Tecumseh in nine innings.

Despite pitching nine innings earlier in the day, Clutch still needed her customary warm-up time prior to the title game, much to the consternation of Parker.

“Most girls now would be worn out just by Casey’s pregame warm up,” he said. “That day, I was a nervous wreck because how much do you have to get ready if you’ve already pitched (nine) innings that day? Five hours later, we’re getting ready to play for the state championship, and she’s out there for 45 minutes in the bullpen again getting ready.”

“It took me a day and a day-and-a-half to warm up, as (Parker) would probably say,” Clutch said with a laugh.

No matter how long it may have taken, Clutch’s pregame routine was effective.

Against defending 1A champion Morgan Township, Clutch found herself in a pitcher’s duel with Kim McGinley, each hurler recording 13 strikeouts — a 1A state finals record at the time — as the game reached the eighth inning.

While the Frankton defense had been strong all season, the Eagles took advantage of fielding problems from the opposition to take control.

In the top half of that inning, a pair of Morgan Township errors put Kandis Beardsley and Katie Bodkin on base and brought Clutch to the plate. Cherokees coach Dana Griffin stunned Parker by pitching to the .477 hitter with the game on the line.

“Their coach was an experienced coach, but they pitched to Casey late in the game with a base open,” he said. “I would have never pitched to her. I would have made someone else beat me. But Casey got a big hit. Then, once we scored, that built confidence in Casey who was dominant that day. She always was.”

She lived up to her last name, drilling a base hit that delivered both runners home for a 2-0 Frankton lead.

“We got the lead heading into the bottom half, and I gotta say, I was pretty shaky if someone had looked at my hands,” Clutch recalled. “We were so close, just three outs. But that final fly ball, I thought ‘Oh, no,’ but Kandis Beardsley caught it. We all went crazy, and the dream became a reality.”

Frankton did need to overcome early adversity in that final game before hoisting the trophy.

In the first inning, Morgan Township’s Tami Herlitz led off with a triple, putting Clutch’s feet to the fire in a game where one run could be the difference. After a strikeout, Lauren Flanders — Clutch’s catcher for all four years — came through for her pitcher.

“There was a foul ball that was tough for a catcher to get to, and our catcher got to it to end that inning,” Parker said. “That helped us rally to know that we got this.”

In the two games that day, Clutch faced 57 batters and struck out 34, allowing no walks and just six hits.

“When you start thinking about the emotions and all the hard work to make something like that happen, so many things have to happen to get there,” Clutch said. “I’m just grateful for that moment in time.”

The success for Parker and Frankton softball has continued. Although he is still looking for a second state championship, he has recorded two runner-up finishes (2005 and 2006) and has added six more sectional titles since 2000. But that first team will always be special to him.

“I’m very proud to walk into that gym and see that banner,” Parker said. “That’s something we’ll never forget. That was the first for the school. ... They were great kids. They were looked up to by the younger kids and the community.”

The full 2000 Frankton softball roster included: seniors Beardsley, Karalee Cage and Shelly Barton, juniors Clutch, Flanders, Kylie Schmink, Desiree McPhearson and Jilayne Wilhoite, sophomores Bodkin, Brummett, Mary Graham and Jessica Miller and freshmen Whitney Harrison, Shelby Stinson, Kasey Combs, and Jessica Benefiel. Parker’s coaching staff included David Suchocki, Terry Jarrett and Darrell Bodkin.

Contact Rob Hunt at rob.hunt@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4886.

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