With an undefeated run through District 19-4A, the Salado baseball team won its first league championship in two seasons and now turns its attention to the postseason.
Every team sets goals at the beginning of the season with their eyes set on district titles and deep runs in the playoffs, but head coach Kreece Cooper noted that his team is more than just talk, they’re about action.
“That’s kind of the mindset we had going into this year,” Cooper said. “We know it’s attainable and we’ve just got to go take care of business.”
Every game the Eagles (21-2-1) have played this season has been viewed as a business trip, “When they get off the bus, it’s business,” Cooper said, “so that’s how they try to handle themselves — day in and day out.
“They know when to turn the switch on and get work done,” Cooper added.
Salado continues its season with a first-round matchup with La Grange in Hutto on Thursday. The single-game bi-district playoff is set for 7 p.m. The Leopards (14-13) finished fourth in District 20-4A with a 6-6 record.
A lot can change from one season to another. For the Eagles, they attribute their success in 2018 to various changes: seven seniors leading the way, team chemistry and the addition of a hitting coach.
On the afternoon of April 25, the junior varsity team practiced on the field while the varsity worked individually in the batting cages.
“I float around and watch,” Cooper said, “and try to give them tidbits of coaching, but mostly it’s on them. When you have seniors who know what I want and they know my expectations, they just know how to get the job done.”
The seniors played a big part in the team’s success, on and off the field.
“We have a bunch of seniors that lead us to victory,” junior catcher and third baseman Rustin Hale said. “They kind of get the ball rolling and the underclassmen step up, do their job and get it done.”
As for the group of seniors, this year sticks out above the rest.
“This is just a special year for us,” Belton Farr said. “We’ve stuck together for four years and never gave up on each other.”
Defensively, the Eagles have been able to keep their opponents at bay. In the regular season finale against Lampasas, senior Ryan Oakes pitched a one-hit shutout with no walks and 11 strikeouts.
And while Oakes put on a dominant performance on the mound, his favorite part of baseball is actually hitting.
“I just like after I swing seeing the ball go off the bat and seeing where it goes,” he said.
It’s a feeling that seems to be contagious among the Eagles. Take their 15-1 victory over Llano at the end of April.
Salado put up 11 runs in the first inning, perhaps spurred by a reminder Cooper gives his team as soon as the national anthem ends.
“Early and often,” he tells the Eagles. “And I mean it. I want them to go out there and score early and often, just so we’re not trying to claw back late in the game.
“That’s big in high school baseball. You only have seven innings, so that’s kind of the motto we try to play by.”
Salado’s bats didn’t start the season that well, but Hale believes things started to come together for the Eagles when they faced Hutto in a tournament before district play.
“We were down the whole game and in the last inning we got people on base and ended up coming back to beat them,” he said. “We really thought we were going to lose and came back to win, so the whole team just carried that momentum throughout district.”
For Oakes and Farr, they said the matchup against Copperas Cove in March was the turning point for the Eagles.
“That game (they) had a pitcher throwing fastballs at 90 miles per hour,” Oakes recalled. “We just kept expanding the zone and striking out.”
“We couldn’t hit the ball and we ended up losing the game,” Farr added, “but I think them hitting us in the face right there flipped the switch in our head and we started playing way better as a team.
“Our bats came alive after that.”
Oakes thought back to the long conversation the team had with first-year hitting coach Emery Atkisson, a 2012 graduate and former standout at Harker Heights, “After that, we started hitting the ball a lot better.”
“Years previous we’ve never had a batting coach,” Farr said. “He’s made us come alive.”
Win, Lose or Draw
Being able to win another district title means something special for Oakes, “Salado has a big tradition of being successful, so it feels great to have it end with a district championship in my last season.”
Cooper is in his third year with Salado and his second as head coach. He witnessed the Eagles team that made it to state in 2015, he knows there’s something special about this group of guys.
“Win, lose or draw, it’s fun,” he said of his team. “These kids have each others’ backs, they can call each other, call me.
“We’re all pretty close-knit. There’s no separation on the bus, the locker room. We’re one close family, so that camaraderie is going to be sad when it’s over.”
Until that final out is called, each player has his eyes set on going as far as they can together in the playoffs.
“So far, we’ve just gotten on a train,” Hale said summing up the season ride to date. “And now we’ve got to just keep going.
“That’s the plan.”
As the Eagles prepare or La Grange, Oakes isn’t too worried. “My teammates do a great job just playing the game the right way and I think we really can compete with anybody.”
Without getting ahead of themselves, the thought that the Eagles have a chance to chase a state title brings a smile to Farr’s face.
“It would have an impact on my life,” he said, chuckling at the possibility, “being able to wear a ring for the rest of my life that has a state championship on it.
“And knowing that my friends and I accomplished something like that on a 4A state level,” he added.