Kreece Cooper can see it.
Salado’s first-year head coach believes his team is playing its best baseball of the season right now.
Heading into this week’s regional quarterfinal series against third-ranked Robinson, the Eagles are playing like a team on a mission to get back to the UIL State Tournament in Austin.
“We really struggled in the non-district part of our schedule early on,” Cooper said. “It was really tough to see us lose as many games as we did, but most of the teams we lost to are still playing in the playoffs.
“We played a lot of top teams in Class 3A, 4A and 5A, and because of that, we became a better team.”
Salado is coming off a 4-3 win over Athens in the area round, receiving a big performance on the mound from Drew Dobbins, who gave his team 6 1/3 innings, while Jacob Wilk came on to get the final two outs to preserve the win.
District 17-4A champion Robinson (26-2) is coming off a pair of area-round wins against Taylor by scores of 5-2 and 11-4 last weekend.
“Robinson expects to be playing at this time every year in baseball,” Cooper said. “They are still playing baseball in mid-May for a reason.”
Last season, the Eagles saw Robinson starting pitcher Dru Dzeidzic in the state semifinal, and Cooper expects his club will see the same starter pitcher in one of the games this week.
The Eagles and Rockets met last year at state with the Eagles picking up a 7-1 win behind Cody Wolf to advance to the state title game.
With Wolf, a 2016 Class 4A All-State First Team selection, graduated and now playing for Temple College, many expected a down year from Salado this season.
But, that is not the case.
With the production of key players, including Dobbins, Wilk, Ryan Oakes, Tate Harvey, Parker Seaton and Belton Farr, the Eagles are back.
District 19-4A runner-up Salado (18-11-1) received contributions from its entire roster, and Cooper admits the whole team stepped up and put in the time in the weight room.
“I give all the credit in the world to every member of the baseball team this year,” Cooper said. “These guys really put in the work in the offseason to become better and it’s paying off.
“We really have a lot of depth this year, and that is an attribute to the hard work they have given me.”
One of the players who had an impact is catcher Cullen McKinney.
The senior produced a key RBI single against Athens that proved to be the winning run.
Not only does the senior come through with his bat, but his behind-the-plate game management caught his coach’s eye.
“Cullen comes in everyday and is ready to go to work,” Cooper said. “He has caught every inning of every game this year for us except one inning. Ask anyone and they will tell you that catching is the hardest position to play on the field, and he is the perfect catcher for us.
“When he is on the field catching, I am extremely confident in our game plan.”
Last season, the Eagles barreled through Region IV on their way to state. This year, Salado finds itself in Region III, and Cooper believes there is not much difference.
“Region IV has teams like Geronimo, Navarro, Sweeny and Sinton, who have branded programs every year,” he said, “but I feel like Region III is just as tough.
“I feel like District 17 and 19 are the toughest districts in our region right now.”
The three-game series opens tonight at 7 p.m. at Mary Hardin-Baylor with Game 2 set for Friday at 7 p.m. Game 3, if necessary, has yet to be determined.
“In order for us to win this series,” Cooper said, “we have to eliminate mistakes. We need execute the little things. Good teams will exploit those things and we have to play good, clean baseball.”
“Taylor was up on Robinson in the third inning, and they started making errors, and that allowed Robinson to start taking over the game.”
The winner of the Salado-Robinson series faces the winner between West Orange-Stark and Orangefield.
“This is a fun time of the year to still be playing baseball,” Cooper said. “No doubt about it.
“I believe in my guys and I am excited to get this series started.”