CINCINNATI -- If ever there were a buzzer-beater on the baseball field, the Elder Panthers nailed a longshot in 1999.
A 4-2 upset win in the Division I state final over Cuyahoga Falls on June 5, 1999, at Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton, Ohio, extended the Elder baseball program's streak of winning an Ohio high school state baseball title to six straight decades … just before the clock ran out on the 1990s.
"The tradition rolls on," left fielder Jeff Lammers said after the state final.
That tradition began with the program's first state baseball title in 1943 and really took hold with five titles in the 1950s -- in '52, '55, '56, '58 and '59. The Panthers made it three straight decades with a state title in 1960, then won two more in 1973 and 1978.
The program's 10th state title came in 1984 and the Panthers extended the streak to seven decades with the program's 12th and most recent state title in 2005.
"Every decade since the 40s is a neat thing," longtime Elder coach Mark Thompson said.
But in 1999, the Panthers were in the grips of a 14-year title drought. Thompson, who is now the winningest coach in program history, had taken over the program in 1990 and was in his 10th season as Panthers head coach without a state title at that point.
Still, there was not much talk of the streak as the 1999 season began, especially with an inexperienced roster returning.
"I bet you there were people out there thinking about it," Elder athletic director Dave Dabbelt said. "I'm not sure the kids put it out there. I know I didn't and I'm sure Mark didn't. But behind the scenes, some fans and alums, it was sort of out there."
Catcher Aaron Brown, who is now one of Thompson's varsity assistants, was the only starter back from the 1998 team that went 19-10 and placed third in the Greater Catholic League South.
"So, expectations were not very high going into that year," Thompson said. "We finished third in the GCL and then, for whatever reason, things started going our way. Everything started clicking. They all got along well. They were a tight-knit group. They weren't overly talented, but we came together at the right time."
Elder entered the postseason with a 20-7 record and then beat Princeton, 7-0, May 12 and Fairfield, 6-3, May 14 to win the sectional title. Elder outlasted Centerville, 10-8, on May 21 in the district final and a rematch of the season-opener.
"I really think the one game that turned it around was the Centerville game," Dabbelt said. "We ended up winning 10-8 in a pretty close game."
Elder beat Piqua, 3-1, in the regional semifinals on May 28 and then rolled past GCL-rival Moeller, 10-0, to win Elder's first regional title in baseball since 1987. Elder had split two games with Moeller during the regular season, but now the Panthers were two wins away from history.
"We were not what you would call everybody's choice to win state, and it was really kind of neat," Dabbelt said.
Elder reached the state final with a 12-5 rout of Toledo St. Francis DeSales on June 3 in Canton, setting up the matchup with a powerful and heavily favored Cuyahoga Falls team.
"They were ranked very high in the nation and a very talented team," Thompson said. "They had 'State Champs' shirts made up that they wore under their jerseys. They were wearing these shirts during batting practice and that kind of motivated our guys."
The ill-fated Cuyahoga Falls T-shirts weren't the only fashion statement made prior to the state final. When Elder players removed their hats for the national anthem, each one was sporting blond hair.
"The night before the state final, one of the players had the idea of dying everybody's hair blond," Thompson said. "We went up to one of the kids' rooms and a couple of the moms started dying their hair blond.
"There were a lot of neat little things like that that brought the guys together."
Nothing brought them together more than eventually winning that state title with two runs in the top of the ninth of the state final before holding off a rally in the final half-inning.
"We stepped up when we had to," Brown said after the game. "We deserve this."
Brown began the ninth-inning rally with a two-out single, and Anthony McClarnon walked. That's when Lammers laced the fastball he was looking for to center, scoring Brown and McClarnon.
Thompson left the bottom of the ninth to Dan Bachman, who had been the Panthers' ace before suffering a knee injury midway through the season and missing two weeks.
"We were going to bring him out of the bullpen," Thompson said, because his stamina had not been built back after the injury. "He got the win in both state games."
Bachman walked a couple in the ninth and Thompson went out for a visit to see if his pitcher was OK.
"He goes, 'Coach, I got this,'" Thompson said. "I said, 'All right.' He strikes the next guy out on three pitches. Game over. There was a lot of neat things like that that just sort of happened."
And so, the streak continued for the Panthers.
"It's so fun to see," Dabbelt said. "Starting back in the '40s, and probably earlier, baseball is a big thing on the west side. Those kinds of things were really important then and still are."
The 1999 team became a chapter of the storied Elder baseball history with no time to spare. Thompson sums up the magnitude of that history with an anecdote from his team's 2005 run to the state title when a reporter came out to feature the team.
"He asked the players to raise their hand if they had a relative close to their family on a state championship team from Elder, and all but two raised their hand," Thompson said. "So, we had 18 or 19 guys there and 16 or 17 raised their hand. So the legacy thing is probably the biggest thing when you talk about Elder baseball. Generation to generation, these guys hear about it all year."
Thompson said he hadn't heard much about the decades streak until a reporter brought it up just before the 1999 regional tournament. He's heard a lot about it since then, and now the Panthers program is staring at the closing of another decade with the streak on the line. Elder finished this season 13-14 and was eliminated from the state playoffs May 11 in a 2-0 loss to Loveland.
"It's something that they take pride in," Thompson said of the streak. "It's a pretty cool thing. Hopefully we can get another one before the end of the decade. You never know."