A bright-eyed seventh-grader in 2008, Jon Franz sat along the third-base bleachers at Dell Diamond holding up a “Salado Eagles, win state” sign.

He marveled at the way Salado senior third baseman Matt Fritch gutted out plays from the hot corner, and how poised senior pitcher Sam Van Hoozer seemed on the mound.

Franz experienced his first taste of Salado baseball during the program’s greatest season on record — when a scrappy, senior-laden Eagles squad won the 2008 Class 2A state championship.

“My parents took me to every game, every series they had that year in the playoffs, and it was exciting sitting in the stands watching the (Salado) athletes play,” Franz said. “The potential that they had, I wanted to grow up and be just like them.”

Five years later, Franz is living out that mission as Salado’s senior shortstop and leading hitter, championing the No. 2 ranked Eagles (29-4-1) on what he hopes to be a another history-making run.

Using a combination of his experiences — as a fan, as a bench player and as a brother — Franz is guiding Salado back to where it feels like it belongs: celebrating atop the pitchers mound inside Dell Diamond, the site of the annual UIL state baseball tournament.

“Seeing different teams come out here and compete, it just kind of fuels me to take my team and take us as far as we can,” Franz said. “It’s kind of given us the fuel, we want to be that team that goes all the way this year.”

But first, they must get through this weekend’s Region III-2A quarterfinal series with Centerville (22-6-2). Game 1 is set for 7:30 tonight at A&M Consolidated, with 6-foot-7 senior Reagan Bazar slated to start on the mound against the Tigers.

Game 2 is set for 2 p.m. Saturday and, if necessary, Game 3 will be played 30 minutes following the conclusion of Game 2.

In his second season as a starter and third as a letterman, Franz is leading Salado with a .483 batting average, .538 on-base percentage, 43 runs, 44 RBIs, and 20 doubles.

“I think there are certain players on your team that the guys always believe in and look to as a leader to carry your team to victory, and without those guys you really don’t have a chance to make deep runs,” Salado head coach Chad Krempin said. “You have to have a couple of go-to guys that get it done, period.”

Three years after watching from the stands, Franz got his first opportunity as a sophomore bench player that was brought up from junior varsity during Salado’s 2011 run to the Region IV-3A semifinals in the program’s first season at 3A.

Led by a group of 10 seniors, several of whom were key members of the 2008 championship squad, the 2010 Eagles suffered the bitter disappointment of failing to reach the ultimate goal — celebrating inside Dell Diamond.

“(That experience taught me that) working hard will get you far, but you’ve got to put in a lot of time into this sport and everybody’s got to be committed — not one person can lead the team, the whole team has to be 100 percent committed to the sport,” Franz said. “And I think we have that this year, everybody’s really committed.”

But sometimes, even commitment is not enough to create the magic necessary for a deep playoff run.

Franz witnessed that firsthand, agonizing along with twin sister Jenna — younger by a mere minute — as the Salado Lady Eagles softball team was ousted by Mildred in an area-round Saturday sweep May 4 at Waco ISD’s softball complex.

“It affected me a lot, especially going and watching them, I knew they had high expectations for their season and I knew it just kind of ended,” Franz said. “After seeing that happen, it made me realize what happened to us last year (losing the final two games in a playoff series), and I don’t want that to happen (again). The season can be over in the blink of an eye, so you’ve got to be prepared and go out to the field and give it all you’ve got.”

Jenna has committed to play softball at Division III’s Concordia University Texas in Austin and Jon plans to follow her there and pursue a potential baseball opportunity.

“I always wanted a brother growing up, but my sister she’s really in love with softball and it wasn’t hard for me to ask her, ‘Hey, come out in the backyard and come play catch with me,’” Franz said. “And it was fun. I taught her a lot and I learned a lot from her and we had fun growing up together.”

It’s been Franz’s experiences along the way that have given him such a unique perspective — one-part fan, one-part brother, one-part player — and has the Eagles on the cusp of another championship.

Contact Alex Byington at alexb@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7566

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