Keller's dual feat results in Grain Valley's first baseball district crown since 2009

Michael Smith
The Examiner
The Grain Valley baseball team poses with the Class 5 District 7 championship plaque after edging Marshall 2-1 Friday at Raytown South High School for the Eagles' first district crown since 2009.

Grain Valley senior Cole Keller just got done running the 1,600-meter relay and 400-meter dash at the Class 5 Sectional 4 track and field meet around 4 p.m Friday. 

He wasn’t done with his day, though. He still had a baseball game to pitch. 

The senior was the starting pitcher for a 7 p.m. Class 5 District 7 championship game against Marshall at Raytown South High School. Head coach Brian Driskell admitted that Keller looked tired at times, but he fought through the fatigue to pitch a gem. 

Keller tossed 5 2/3 innings and allowed one run on two hits and struck out seven in a 2-1 victory over the Owls, helping his team win its first district title since 2009. 

“This is a fun experience,” Grain Valley head coach Brian Driskell said after his 25-8 Eagles advanced to a Class 5 state quarterfinal on May 29. “I have never been in this situation. It’s overwhelming. 

“For Cole to run in two, three events in track sectional this morning, and come out here and empty the tank … I was honestly concerned about him around the third inning. He reached down for something else and he gave us a chance to put it away.” 

It was a long time coming for Keller and the Eagles, as they made the district championship his first two seasons just to see another team dogpile on the mound at game’s end. After his junior baseball season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Keller got to experience his own dogpile in his last year as an Eagle. 

“We came so close to winning districts in my first two years, so for Coach to put the ball in my hand for a championship game, I wanted to give it all I had for him and the team,” Keller said. “I have seen (two) other teams (dogpile after winning a district title), so I couldn’t wait to get in that thing.” 

He and his teammates wouldn’t have been able to experience that without the clutch pitching of relief pitcher Joel Palecek, who got the save. Grain Valley went into the top of the sixth with a 2-1 lead. Keller got a strikeout and a pop-out to start the inning, but walked the next two batters.  

Palecek came in and gave up an infield single to load the bases, but got Zach Martinez to pop out to end the threat.  

“Joel is a great pitcher,” Keller said. “If you watched him, all year he’s pitched in huge games. He comes up big every single time.” 

He then worked around a two-out single and got Seth Hoffman to hit a fly ball to right field. Jacob Grasher made a running basket catch to set off the Eagles’ celebration. 

“It hurt, but it was great,” Palecek said of the dogpile. “It felt so good to be in that. I just gave all glory to God. I trusted in him and my team and my coaches. No pressure was going through my head.” 

The win certainly didn’t come easy for the Eagles. They had trouble getting hits against Marshall starting pitcher Ben Haug. It was an Owl error that opened things up for Grain Valley. Left fielder Riley Bown reached on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the third, took second on a wild pitch and scored on an errant throw after a ground ball from Keller by Hoffman at third. 

One batter later, Keller stole second and scored on Kaden Jeffries’ RBI single on a sharp line drive to center, making it 2-0. Aside from that inning, Haug kept the Eagles off balance, only allowing three hits in six innings and striking out seven. 

“His changeup was great, we knew that coming in,” Keller said of Haug. “His curveball was also great. He was better than we anticipated.” 

Marshall’s only run came in the fifth on Martinez’s RBI double on a ball hit in the right-center field gap. After hitting a batter to put runners at first and second base, Keller got a strikeout and fly out to end the threat. 

A few minutes after the game was over, Driskell was walking around the third-base side, looking for someone. While the head coach was distracted, Cruz Haley snuck behind him and dumped the remains of the water cooler onto him. 

“There’s not very many situations I would enjoy getting my clothes wet when I have to get back in my car, but that was a welcome show for sure,” Driskell said. 

The Eagles will play host to District 8 champion, Smithville or Kearney, in the quarterfinal on May 29. Smithville and Kearney meet Saturday for that title.