Settled in at his regular bucket of balls on the edge of the dugout at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond, Melvin Bates’ confidence began to waver.
For the first time all season, nothing was going right for Salado.
The third-ranked Eagles seemed shell-shocked, committing five errors as No. 4 Lexington knocked around right-handed senior Kevin Jackson for six runs over the first two innings in the first game of the 2008 Region IV-2A final.
“When we were down 6-0, I was wondering if it was going to come to an end there,” said Bates, who was Salado’s head baseball coach from 1986 to 2011.
But he was the only one in that dugout to even entertain such a notion.
“With our team, six runs wasn’t that big of a deal,” Jackson said. “With the guys we had swinging the bats, we all kind of knew there wasn’t a lead we couldn’t overcome.”
After throwing out a flawed scouting report, the Eagles scored two runs in the bottom of the second and four more over the next two innings and tied the game 6-6 on Johnny Nix’s RBI single to left in the bottom of the fourth.
Justin Berumen then provided the necessary fireworks when he crushed a 400-foot grand slam over the left-field wall and sent the Eagles to a 10-7 victory.
Senior left-hander Sam VanHoozer then punched the program’s first ticket to the 2A state tournament in 22 years with a 12-0, five-inning thumping of Lexington in Game 2.
“After his grand slam, that’s when we figured out it was probably ours for the taking,” Jackson said.
Seven days later, Jackson ranged to his left from third base, scooped up a slow roller and flipped it to Berumen at second. Following the ball the whole way, Jackson leapt into Berumen’s arms and “chaos ensued” as Salado locked up the baseball team’s only Class 2A state title with a 12-8 win over Corsicana Mildred.
“It was kind of the fulfillment of everything we’d been working towards since we started playing baseball together,” said Jackson, who’s in his first year of law school at Texas Wesleyan.
Bates said: “As a player or a coach, it’s what you always dream about.”
A bit of déjà vu
Now, five years later, VanHoozer was among the standing-room-only crowd of Salado fans Friday at Red Murff Field experiencing a sense of déjà vu.
Having recently completed his senior season with Mary Hardin-Baylor, VanHoozer watched as the Eagles faced a similar six-run deficit against longtime rival Troy in Game 2 of the Region III-2A final series.
Falling behind 7-1 after the third inning, Salado scored four runs over the next three innings before succumbing in a 7-5 loss. But, much like in that 2008 regional final series, the Eagles’ ability to fight back shifted momentum in their favor and junior ace Casey Frazier — much like VanHoozer himself five years prior — pitched the Eagles to the 2A state tournament with an 11-0 five-inning rout.
“Watching them, it reminded me of us,” VanHoozer said.
The win has the Eagles once again on the cusp of a state championship as No. 2 Salado (34-6-1) takes on No. 7 Hallettsville (33-3) in the second 2A state semifinal at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Eagles senior shortstop and leading hitter Jon Franz.
With their faces painted, Franz and senior first baseman Bryce Martin were in those Dell Diamond stands in 2008 proudly holding up a signs that read: “Salado Eagles win state” and “Gas ... $3.84. Salado state championship ... PRICELESS.”
From the bleachers, those future Eagles idolized players like third baseman Matt Fritsch and pitcher Justin Schiller.
“To sit in the stands watching those guys play, I dreamed that one day in my high school career I’d have an opportunity to be there at the state tournament — I got there this year,” Franz said.
That 2008 state title team was a senior-laden squad with Fritsch, Jackson, Nix, Schiller, VanHoozer, Josh Coleman, Seth Collins, Blake Heller, Colin Smith, and Garret Ward — several of whom had played together since grade school.
“They had so much experience, I didn’t have to do much at all — I just put them out there, set a batting order and had fun,” Bates said.
Salado, the third-ranked team in the state in 2008, was dominant during their magical postseason run, outscoring teams 108-40 while going 8-1 — the lone loss in Game 2 of the regional semifinals versus Odem.
That included five run-rule victories while averaging 12 runs per game, including scoring in every inning of the state tournament except the final one.
“There have been high expectations for (Salado) baseball,” Franz said, “especially after the ’08 season.”
That 2008 championship squad did more than just raise the bar for the baseball program, it helped elevate the entire 2,000-person community nestled along Interstate 35 halfway between Austin and Waco.
“I feel like it brought the whole town closer, and you can see it (now) at the Salado games (when) you can’t even find a seat — it just brings the whole town out,” VanHoozer said.
Like most small Texas towns, football is the lifeblood, but at least in Salado, baseball has become the heart of the community.
VanHoozer still gets choked up thinking about the feeling of turning around after the players’ on-field celebration to see a sea of red celebrating right along with them in the Dell Diamond stands.
“You see all the faces that you grew up playing with, you see all of them happy, you knew we were all working toward this one moment,” he said. “And then when you come away from the pile and look into the stands, you see the whole town of Salado just cheering for you.”
The Salado community is once again expected to pack the Dell Diamond stands as its latest crop of Eagles try to repeat history, all with an aura of confidence that the 2008 state champion team infused into them five years ago.
“It’s special, and it’s even cooler to see those guys in the same position we were, because they’ve put in all the same hard work we did to get where they’re at,” Fritsch said. “It was just a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Hopefully these guys that can soak it up and enjoy it … go out there and have fun, play baseball and see what you can (get) out of it.”