Canyon baseball hoping to bring John Doan back a state championship

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Head coach John Doan will lead the Canyon Eagles to the UIL state baseball tournament for the first time in his career on Wednesday. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]
Monday morning, Canyon coach John Doan got on the bus for the biggest trip of his career as a head coach, which will poetically enough, be his last trip as a head coach.

In the final chapter of a storybook season, Canyon and Doan are headed to the Class 4A state semifinals at Austin’s Disch-Falk Field. The Eagles will face Texarkana Liberty-Eylau at 4 p.m. Wednesday in the second semifinal of the day, with the winner advancing to the state championship game at 6 p.m. Thursday.

With two more wins, Doan can put an exclamation point on a highly successful career, which will mean bringing a state championship back to Canyon. Doan has announced that this is his final season as a coach.

In his typically unassuming manner, Doan doesn’t want the spotlight on him in the limited time he has in the dugout.

“Coaching is all about the kids and this is all about their experience and the coaches are along for the ride here,” Doan said. “I told the guys at the beginning of the year first place is available for us if we go for it, and that didn’t work out for us, so we just said the most important thing is to get into the playoffs and advance and now here is a real opportunity for first place. You can’t just be happy to be on the bus to go down and play one game.”

The Eagles (30-8-1) could be considered a shaggy dog story so far as they entered the playoffs as the No. 3 seed from District 4-4A, finishing behind fellow Canyon ISD schools Randall and West Plains as the Nos. 1-2 seeds. But look who’s still standing.

Canyon is one of only four 4A schools left in the state and one of only four teams who still has a shot at a state championship. With that at stake, Doan is preparing his team to play play two games in Austin.

“That’s how we set our itinerary up,” Doan said. “We’re playing in the championship game and we’re staying here full time. That’s the approach going in to play two games.”

This trip to Austin is a full circle moment for Doan. In his first year at Canyon in 2003, he was an assistant to Gary Hix, and the Eagles reached the Class 3A semifinals that year.

Canyon faced Sinton in the semis at Disch-Falk and had a two-run lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning, but Sinton scored twice to force extra innings and won 4-3 in 10 innings. Doan remembers the fashion trends developing from that era as much as the heartbreaking loss.

“A funny about that is that’s when the blond hair trends in the playoffs started,” said Doan, who took over as head coach the next season when Hix left for Amarillo High. “The kids asked if they could dye their hair and if we would do it. Hix said they’d have to get us past the third round and we would do it. I looked at him and he looked at me and I said ‘Speak for yourself.”

The coaching staff eventually gave in, and it’s become a trend among Texas schools, which can be witnessed on most of Canyon’s players this season. That’s not the only similarity Doan sees between 2003 and this year.

“Those kids were a lot like these guys,” Doan said. “I just remember those guys being really close and good friends, doing the same things these guys are doing now after practice. The camaraderie is just excellent. There’s a lot of similarities

“That team was just full of pitching and that’s what drove us all the way through. They were very, very scrappy at the plate and that’s how these guys are. We have a chance; we just have to believe that we belong and take hold of these opportunities.”

Christian McGuire of Canyon after hitting a double against Stephenville last Saturday. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]

Forget seeding

It’s more of a reflection of the quality of competition the Eagles faced this season than any of their own shortcomings that they made the state tournament despite being a No. 3 seed in their own district. Records haven’t mattered as Canyon has won nine of 10 games in the playoffs.

If that makes the Eagles seem like “underdogs”, that’s just fine with Doan.

“We may get underestimated, but I tell the guys all the time that it doesn’t matter if we’re 30-8 or 15-15, we need to take the underdog, blue collar approach,” Doan said. “Nothing is going to be given to us. There is no such thing as entitlement. We need to go out and earn this.”

Canyon teammates Carson Allen (3) and Rece Davis (1) chat before Allen’s at-bat against West Plains in the regional quarterfinals. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]

The hard way

Despite such a “low” seeding entering the postseason, the Eagles actually were dominant through the first three rounds of the playoffs, sweeping all three of their opponents. The last two weeks have presented unique challenges of their own, though.

Prior to the region semifinals two weeks ago, Canyon lost a coin flip with Springtown and was forced to play a one-game series against Springtown. After giving up a run in the third inning, the Eagles scored eight in the fifth and sixth to cruise to an 8-1 win.

In last week’s region final against Stephenville, Canyon returned to a more “traditional” three-game series. The Eagles didn’t lead the first game until scoring three runs in the bottom of the seventh, as Sam Johnson broke out of a slump with a game-winning single in a 7-6 victory.

Canyon took a two-run lead in the second game the next day on a bases-loaded double by Beau Boehning in the top of the sixth, but Stephenville scored four in the bottom of the inning to win 5-3. Not only did it force a third game, but it was the first loss of the postseason for the Eagles.

In the final game, Canyon took an early lead before Stephenville tied it up in the top of the fifth. The Eagles scored two in the bottom of the inning to reclaim the lead and held on for a 5-4 win.

“We’ve been in so many up-and-down nailbiter games where we’ve had to fight, claw and scratch,” Doan said. “Somebody in that lineup has come through and it hasn’t been the same guy every single time. We haven’t relied on one guy all season long. It’s been somebody up and down that lineup all season long.”

Canyon head coach John Doan hugs his wife Janice after his Eagles beat Stephenville to advance to the state tournament. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]

Coincidence or destiny?

It’s a different team from Region I in the 4A state semifinals this season, but it’s one from roughly the same place. For the second straight year, a Canyon ISD team is going to Austin, and the similarities don’t end there.

Last season, Randall reached the 4A state semifinals, and Canyon’s path closely mirrors that of the Raiders. Both teams had to beat Stephenville in three games in the region finals to reach state.

And awaiting Canyon in the state semis is Liberty-Eylau (31-9-1), the same team Randall played last season. The Eagles are hoping for a better result than the Raiders had last year, as Liberty-Eylau routed Randall 15-5 in the semis.

Especially, Doan might be looking to avoid the same fate as Randall’s Cory Hamilton, who coached his final game against Liberty-Eylau before announcing his retirement. Doan is finding out what he can from whoever he can about Wednesday’s opponent.

“We’ve talked to coach Hamilton and we’ve got another call in to another coach,” Doan said. “It wasn’t so much about individuals and coaches as it was about gamesmanship. At the end of the day it’s just baseball. We still have to attack the game.”

Like Canyon, the Leopards needed three games to win the Region II final against Celina. Senior W.T. Jones is a top returner at shortstop and pitcher, as he’s hitting .408 and has a 10-2 record on the mound. Junior Triston Haugh is hitting .370 and has a 6-0 record on the mound.

Canyon pitcher Colt Cruth has been heavily depended on throughout the postseason. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]

Colt will be the workhorse

Pitching depth has been a hallmark of the Eagles in the postseason and it will be put to the test when it counts the most, as it was against Stephenville. On the second day of the region finals, Colt Cruth started the second game and pitched five solid innings with no decision. In the third game, Cruth came back and pitched the final two innings for the save which got Canyon to state.

It should be no surprise, then, that Doan has tabbed Cruth to start against Liberty-Eylau. The junior right-hander is 7-1 on the season.

“Number one, it’s all about getting to that championship game and it’s all hands on deck,” Doan said. “If we get to Thursday, we’ll sort that out when we get there. Colt Cruth is going to be our starter and we’ll play that out like a one-gamer. We’re fortunate enough to have some pitching depth and we just don’t have to leave somebody out there and be in trouble for very long.”

Cruth also started the one-game playoff against Stephenville and threw three innings before junior right-hander Bayler Schilling relieved and threw 3 1/3 innings for the win. Schilling and fellow sophomore righty Noah Sanchez have been staples in the bullpen in the postseason and either or both could get the call against Liberty-Eylau.

If the Eagles win, they’ll face the winner of Wednesday’s 1 p.m. semifinal between Corpus Christi Calallen and Longview Springhill in Thursday’s state title game.

Canyon celebrates after beating Stephenville in the Class 4A regional championship. [Roy Wheeler/ Press Pass Sports]

A banner year

While Canyon can bring home a state title, for the second straight year, another CISD school will win the Lone Star Cup awarded for all extracurricular activities. Randall, with 99 points, has already clinched the title in 4A.

Canyon sits in fourth place with 78 points but can move up with one win. If the Eagles beat Liberty-Eylau, they’ll pass third-place Boerne, and if they win the state title, they’ll move into second ahead of Frisco Panther Creek, putting the CISD schools 1-2 in the state.
Second-year CISD school West Plains has also acquitted itself nicely in the cup standings, finishing 17th with 43 points.

Three other area schools have clinched top 10 point finishes in their respective classifications. Amarillo High was sixth in 5A with 64 points, Bushland tied for 10th in 3A with 37 points and Wildorado tied for eighth in 1A with 32 points.

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