All the signs have been there for coach Cory Hamilton and the Randall Raiders, and they’ve been there for a while.
Now fate has them in a position where they’re two wins away from Texas Panhandle baseball history.
It only seems appropriate that Hamilton is at the helm of the Raiders as they prepare for their UIL Class 4A state semifinal game against Texarkana Liberty-Eylau at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Disch Falk Field on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin. Everything seems as if it’s been building up to a happy ending.
But the ever-cautious veteran coach Hamilton only counts on that if the Raiders can take care of business.
“The high school playoffs are a long process and these guys have been committed to it the last six weeks,” Hamilton said. “We’re still kind of in that same mentality of looking forward to that next game and opponent and gathering information on what we can to finish this thing off.
“Every time (the Raiders) just come back and focus on the game itself. I think preparation has a lot more to do with making sure we’re good and ready.”
Hamilton’s been preparing for games a long time now and has been pretty successful at it. Earlier this season at the Amarillo ISD Randy Keller Memorial Baseball Tournament, Hamilton notched his 400th career win.
That’s a fact which could be easily forgotten considering the magnitude of Randall’s success on the diamond this season. Hamilton’s milestone win came fairly early in a 32-game winning streak by the Raiders (38-4) which didn’t end until a 3-2 loss to Stephenville in the first game of last week’s region final round in Midland.
Randall had to win two games against Stephenville to make it to Austin, and posted a pair of shutout wins to do so. That clinched the school’s second trip to the state tournament, and the first one since 2007.
Two years after that appearance by the Raiders, Hamilton took the reins of the Randall program, moving down from Dumas. A true Panhandle product who graduated from Friona and pitched at West Texas A&M, Hamilton has maintained a winning tradition at Randall and in his 20th season as a head coach, is finally going to a state tournament.
“It’s very surreal,” Hamilton said.” Anybody who gets into coaching dreams of a state championship and for it to be this close. There were a few times we got to the region semifinals and to get past that is huge. To get down there with the competition we’ll see is really amazing.”
Perhaps, though, not that surprising.
In 2022, their last season in Class 5A, the Raiders went 14-1 in District 3-5A. Before that year was even over, Randall knew it was moving down to Class 4A after UIL realignment due to the opening of a third Canyon ISD high school, West Plains, which would drop Randall’s enrollment numbers.
With so much talent coming back from last year, state tournament talk made sense.
“I don’t think that was just my expectation,” Hamilton said. “It was the players expectation. We knew how good these guys have been in the past. I think the expectation was there but getting there is a whole other story to fulfill it. To play for a championship is really, really exciting.”
On the surface, one who wasn’t paying much attention to Randall’s season may think it’s all been smooth sailing, and the record would seem to reflect that. But Hamilton hasn’t always had a full complement of talent at his disposal.
Most prominently, shortstop Kole Dudding, who signed with Oral Roberts, injured his shoulder during the Keller tournament and missed the first half of 4-4A play. Dudding says that Hamilton didn’t make him feel like any less a part of the team.
“We talked about it and he told me that I deserved it and that any decision I would make, I’d done the work and I deserved to have that spot,” Dudding said. “I could come back at any time and he made that pretty clear. He was just super supportive and OK with me doing whatever was best for myself.”
Now Dudding is back in the lineup as a key player for the Raiders. He did miss a game in the region semifinal series against Wichita Falls after tweaking a knee and left-handed pitcher Carson Haffner also missed a start in that series with a toe injury. Add to that catcher-outfielder Mason Gilbert missing a few district games with injury, and Hamilton has had to stress the next-man-up mentality.
“Just having resiliency and being there for others and being able to count on that other person whenever you need to,” said Dudding of what Hamilton’s taught the team. “He’s big on preparing for whatever we have. He always is there for us but lets us go and do our own thing.”
That may be why there wasn’t a sense of panic when the Raiders lost their series opener to Stephenville last week. They appeared vulnerable for the first time in two months as they weren’t used to dealing with a loss.
Randall proceeded to give up nothing in the next two games. Right-hander Duncan Bowles, who’s 13-0 on the season, survived a none out, runners on the corners situation in the seventh to win game two 2-0. Logan Tice then shut down Stephenville’s bats as junior Hagen Shedd hit a grand slam late to clinch a 6-0 victory and punch Randall’s ticket to state.
“I think this team has done a good job of understanding everything happens for a reason, and everything’s been preparation for where they’re at now,” Hamilton said. “Just looking at things that happen in baseball and spinning it to a positive is what we’ve done all year long.
“They don’t have to worry about carrying that huge win streak. Coming back from a game where your season’s on the line, that’s the way it’s going to be. To have that is going to give us a pretty good outlook.”
Randall has had to come from behind a few times in the playoffs and is now used to playing those closer games. If the Raiders are going to bring back the first state baseball championship to the Panhandle since Dumas did so in 1971, they will likely have to do that Wednesday and in Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. championship game against the winner of Wednesday’s 4 p.m. semi between Sinton and China Spring.
Hamilton and the Raiders appear to be in as good a position as any area team who’s made that trip in the last 52 years ever has been.
“Coach Hamilton’s done a great job for over a decade at Randall High School,” CISD athletic director Toby Tucker said. “You look at a consistent program in the Texas Panhandle, it’s Randall. Year in and year out they’re trying to make that jump to state and fortunately this year they’re making that trip.”
There are still two more games to go, though, if the Raiders are to have their say. Liberty-Eylau (32-6) will have something to say about that as well.
The Leopards advanced by beating Celina 5-4 in a one-game playoff in last week’s Region II-4A final. That’s the same Celina team which was ranked No. 2 in the state (Randall finished the season No. 3) and which beat Randall 8-1 at the Melissa Tournament early in the season.
“One of the best teams we played all year was Celina, so for those guys to beat a team like Celina it tells you that they’re a really quality ball club,” Hamilton said of the Leopards.
To beat Liberty-Eylau, it might be a matter of the Raiders keeping up with the Joneses. That is, senior Cal Jones (batting .429, 11-2 pitching record) and junior W.T. Jones (.435, 10-2).
Hamilton said that Bowles will start against the Leopards.
They are the champions
Regardless of what happens in Austin, Randall will be a state champion for 2022-23. The school has far and away clinched the UIL 4A Lone Star Cup for the school year which tracks points each school scores in athletics and academic extracurricular activities.
Randall has compiled 107 points, leading the standings by 26 points over second place Boerne. With state championships in volleyball, team tennis and boys golf as well as winning in One-Act Play, Randall has been the best in the state in 4A.
Hamilton says that success by other programs has inspired his guys on the diamond.
“Everybody just pulls for everyone else and when you run into members of the other teams who have been here the message is to go win and represent Randall,” Hamilton said. “Those guys have wanted to do that all season long so it’s been a long, long process of watching everybody else do that and now our chance is finally here.”
After competing successfully in most sports in 5A, showing such dominance in 4A might almost be expected at Randall.
“They’ve had a tremendous year,” Tucker said. “It’s just a testament to their program with all those coaches have done there. Dropping to 4A with the split there was a lot of uncertainty, but now it’s out of mind and out of sight. We’re moving forward with the kids we have.”
It’s been a solid year for CISD programs in most aspects. Canyon High was fourth in the Lone Star Cup standings with 71 points