The high school athletes participating in the 2022-23 UIL competitive season are down to a precious few in the Texas Panhandle this week, and the spotlight will fall squarely on them.
Considering the way they’ve performed on the diamond most of this spring, that’s no real surprise.
Randall in Class 4A, Bushland in Class 3A and Nazareth in Class 1A are all carrying hot streaks into this week’s baseball playoff action. They’re all looking to move one step closer to, or in Nazareth’s case, directly into the state tournament next month.
Here’s a look at all three teams and where they stand at this late point in the season.
Randall (34-3) vs. Wichita Falls (21-14)
It’s hard to think of anybody in the state in any classification who has been hotter than Randall. The Raiders have won 30 straight games heading into the first game of their series with Wichita Falls which starts at 2 p.m. Friday at Hoskins Field in Wichita Falls. Game two is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. at Hodgetown.
Randall finished the regular season ranked No. 3 in the state and the Raiders have lived up to that ranking on the field. On paper, they’ve been the favorites in every series and that looks no different this week.
“I think you don’t want to peak until the season’s over with,” Randall coach Cory Hamilton said. “I think our guys are continually moving upward. This time last year was not a very happy time because we just got beat by Lubbock Cooper in a three-game series and to be a year later with that much more experience under their belt, they can see the end in sight.”
After beating up on several District 4-4A foes to boast an unbeaten district championship season, the Raiders have found the going not quite as easy in the playoffs. They discovered that quickly in the first game of last week’s region quarterfinal series against 4-4A rival Hereford.
Randall got caught up in a pitchers’ duel with Hereford and came out on top by the most razor-thin of margins. Left-hander Carson Haffner threw a no-hitter as the Raiders scraped out only two hits and an unearned run off Hereford’s Carlos Duran in the sixth inning to pull out a 1-0 victory.
That game showed that Randall has what it takes to win tight games and explains a winning streak which has reached 30 games, although it keeps getting tougher to maintain. The Raiders got back to business in the second game against Hereford, rolling to a 13-3 10-run mercy rule victory in five innings.
“There’s always another opponent, so our focus has always been try to keep things in the short run and focus on the next baseball game,” Hamilton said.
Wichita Falls looks to have the kind of pitching to hang with the Raiders if last week’s sweep of Glen Rose is any indication. The Coyotes won 5-0 and 5-2 as Blake Vanderburg and T.J. McCraw had dominant performances on the mound.
Hamilton sees major similarities between Wichita Falls and Randall’s previous playoff opponent.
“Going into the series against Hereford there were two things I thought Hereford was really good at, and that was pitching and playing good defense and that’s the same thing with Wichita Falls,” Hamilton said. “They have several good pitchers and that will give our offense a challenge, and they typically play good defense. They have been getting guys on base and having some situational hits. They’re a well-rounded ball club.”
Randall figures to pitch Haffner in the first game again and will throw Duncan Bowles, who won the second game against Hereford, when the series comes to Hodgetown.
Bushland (28-3) vs. Wall (30-5-1)
Unlike Randall, Bushland was in a sudden-death season situation in last week’s region quarterfinal against Idalou, which was a one-game playoff. Down to their last three outs in the top of the seventh inning, the Falcons came back for four runs to pull out a 5-3 victory and advance.
Now they’re back to the best-of-three format against Wall this week at Lubbock Cooper, starting at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Game two is scheduled for noon Saturday.
Bushland’s 16-game winning streak is more modest than Randall’s, but it’s every bit as valid right now.
“We talked at the beginning of the year about what our goal was and obviously we want to get past where we were last year,” said Bushland coach Joel Love, whose team reached the region quarters last season. “They made it a goal and they stuck to it and you saw that in their determination last week.”
The Falcons have also had to deal with tighter games in the postseason. They’ve shown they can respond, particularly their lone senior Josh Bass.
Love sent Bass to the mound against Idalou, and aside from one bad inning was nearly perfect, throwing only 81 pitchers. Bass also got a game-tying two-run double in the seventh inning.
“I never was really nervous the other day because I believe in our guys that much and they believe in each other,” Love said. “When you can do those things all year long whether the score’s close or a blowout, you can count on those guys to get it done.”
Wall also had to play a one-game playoff last week due to the weather, and blanked Blanco 4-0. Luke Kemp was dominant on the mound, throwing a one-hit shutout and striking out nine, and the Falcons will almost certainly see him in the next few days.
Love sees many similarities between his team and the Hawks.
“They’re a carbon copy of what we do,” Love said. “Their kids are similar. They play hard, so it’s going to come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes in my opinion. I feel good about us.”
Bass and fellow right-hander junior Cannon Melban figure to be Bushland’s starters on the mound in the first two games. As good as Bass was on the hill, it helped that the Falcons committed no errors behind him against Idalou.
Nazareth (16-4) vs. May (10-3)
Nazareth is the closest of any Panhandle team still remaining to going to the state tournament, which is appropriate considering that the Swifts are the most familiar with being there recently.
The Swifts are looking for their third straight trip to Round Rock in the region final this week, and they’ll have to get by May to do it at Snyder’s Moffitt Field. They’ll open the series Thursday at 6 p.m. with Saturday’s game two scheduled for 3 p.m.
Nazareth has been fairly dominant in two playoff rounds, as the Swifts have won three of their four games via run rule.
“We’ve been tested a few times and responded well,” Nazareth coach Tyler Goodwin said. “You look at the last month-and-a-half of baseball we’ve played, I’ve been pretty pleased with it in all aspects of the game. I just hope we can continue it from here on out.”
The biggest test Nazareth had in the postseason came in game one of last week’s region semifinal series against Claude at Hodgetown. Naz had to go beyond the distance to survive, as Claude tied the game with a run in the bottom of the seventh, but the Swifts manufactured two runs on an error and a balk and Carson Heiman capped it with a two-run single which resulted in an 8-4 victory.
Nazareth had few problems in the second game, completing the sweep with a 14-1 victory. Tanner Birkenfeld led the Swifts at the plate with home run and drove in four runs.
May had to fight harder to beat Gorman, losing the first game 7-4 before rallying to win the next two 10-2 and 13-8. Goodwin admits that May is an unknown quantity.
“I really don’t know a whole lot because of where they’re located,” Goodwin said. “We’ve never really crossed paths and get an opportunity to see each other. Of course, it works both ways. Sometimes not knowing a whole lot can be an advantage because you just get to go play baseball.”
Heiman will likely start Thursday for the Swifts, with Tanner Birkenfeld and Sterl Welps the leading candidates to throw Saturday.