Maybe destiny explains why the Randall Raiders are still standing, and at that, taller than all but one other team in school history at this point.
It would also seem to explain why the Raiders have won 32 straight games and are in the Region I-4A final against Stephenville in Midland starting Thursday, only two wins away from the second trip to the state tournament in school history. However, destiny doesn’t explain everything for Randall’s seniors, be it big or little.
There have been hiccups along the way which would have derailed lesser teams. But with 11 seniors, it’s been more business as usual than what-do-we-do-now for the Raiders, who are 36-3.
That’s no surprise to veteran Randall coach Cory Hamilton, who has coached this group up to what they hope is the logical conclusion.
“Even as this senior class was sophomores, you can surround them with some guys who can fill in,” said Hamilton, who has 423 wins in 23 years as a head coach. “Those guys have been on varsity a long time and it’s almost like having extra coaches. They’re talking bunt defense and they’ve been through all different scenarios for all four years of their careers, so it’s easy to work with these guys.”
Some have been starting on varsity for three years and others for two years, but they all came up together through travel teams and high school and are now at the point where they are no longer Randall students due to graduation. There’s still some business to take care of, which the Raiders hope stretches into next week’s state tournament in Austin.
Stephenville (27-12-1) represents that final hurdle to what Randall’s seniors have been striving toward for a long time.
“We’ve talked about it for a long time now,” said Payton Bush, a three-year starter who plays second base and hits leadoff. “Since we were young, we talked about playing together in high school and going down to win a state championship. This is how we should be playing and how we’re going to play.”
Bush might best personify the mentality of this senior group. Due to injuries, he’s played every infield position except first base, most notably playing shortstop during the first half of District 4-4A play after fellow senior Kole Dudding injured his shoulder.
Also, during district play, seniors catcher-outfielder Mason Gilbert and third baseman A.J. Lucero missed time with injuries. That didn’t prevent the Raiders from going 14-0 in district.
Even the playoffs haven’t been without a little pain for Randall. Prior to last week’s region quarterfinal sweep of Wichita Falls, senior left-hander Carson Haffner, who was scheduled to start game one, injured his toe in a pool party, and in game one, Dudding tweaked a knee and sat out game two.
Neither injury deterred the Raiders. Senior Logan Tice took the mound for Haffner in game one and was solid in 16-1 five-inning 10-run rule win, and without Dudding, they won the second game 6-0 at Hodgetown to complete the sweep.
“I think that’s a testament to the depth of this team is if one guy goes down it’s the next man up mentality and those guys who have stepped up in those situations is what’s gotten us where we are right now,” who is 365-155-3 in 15 years at Randall. “It’s no surprise because as a coach I’m way more concerned about the situation than the players are. These guys have such a strong belief in one another, and it doesn’t really matter who steps in, they have 100 percent confidence that they’re going to get the job done.
“One of the challenges that we issue our players is to find ways to contribute whether that’s in practice or in a game. There’s no job too small.”
And it seems, no task too big. That mindset has been established by the seniors who have formed the team’s backbone and set things on the right path when they’ve teetered a bit.
Pitcher Duncan Bowles, who sports a 12-0 mark, says that work ethic was established before any of them even put on a Randall uniform.
“Our bond’s great,” said Bowles, who threw a three-hit shutout to close out the series against Wichita Falls. “We’ve grown up together and played together since we were knee-high. We’ve been playing for the same travel team. The chemistry is there, and we trust each other with our lives. I couldn’t ask for a better group of dudes to have my back behind me.”
This group recognized each other’s talents quite quickly and they developed on schedule. Becoming the first Randall team to make the state tournament since 2007 was seen as an attainable goal, and now they’re two wins away from that.
“We knew at a young age during our sophomore and senior year by the time we got to our senior year we could be dangerous, and that’s exactly what we are,” Gilbert said. “We go out and do the little things right and dominate on the field. We expect nothing less from ourselves.”
That’s still been the case even when the machine hasn’t always had all its working parts. Dudding, a three-year starter who has signed to play college baseball at Oral Roberts, has been missing for stretches this season.
He had mixed emotions during the first half of district, not getting to play with his friends, but at the same time enjoying their success until he could return.
“I’ve had all the trust in these guys all these years,” Dudding said. “I know they can do it. They’ve got just as much talent as I do. If they play as a team, then they’ll be just fine, but I know with me we complete the team. Everybody’s in the position they want to be in.”
That should be the case when the Raiders open their series with Stephenville at 7 p.m. Thursday at Christensen Stadium, then move down the road for game two at 11 a.m. Friday at Midland Greenwood, the same team who Stephenville eliminated in last week’s region quarters. Dudding is expected to play and Haffner is slated to pitch in game one with Bowles scheduled for game two.
The Yellowjackets aren’t strangers to Randall, as the two teams met at the Melissa Tournament in the second game of the season. Randall won 10-2, but Hamilton’s not putting much stock in that game.
“I think our focus has been on being consistent and when you look across at those guys, they’ve really been consistent all year,” Hamilton said of the Yellowjackets. “We saw them at the first tournament of the year and I thought they were a very talented baseball team. They’ve done nothing but get better and hopefully we have too. Whoever gets out will be a great representative for Region I for the state tournament.”
Randall’s players, be they seniors or underclassmen, have all taken part in what’s become a time-honored postseason ritual. They’ve all dyed their hair blond for as long as their postseason run lasts, taking the cue from Southlake Carroll’s football program stretching back nearly two decades.
But this year’s success began well before the Raiders hit the peroxide. With a 32-game winning streak they haven’t tinkered with routine.
“I have a lot of superstitions,” Bush said. “I always have to do the same routine. I never step on the line. I’m always eating Mike and Ike’s during the game.”
The only thing that could be sweeter than Bush’s sugar buzz from his favorite candy is raising a state championship trophy next week. Gilbert thinks Randall has just refused to lose, regardless of the odds the Raiders have faced.
“Our mindset and mentality has a lot to do with the way that we play,” Gilbert said. “We’re not the biggest, we’re not the fastest and we’re not the strongest team, but we’re the baddest team and it’s going to take a lot to beat us.”