The Big Sandy Wildcats ended its best baseball season in school history Saturday, with a pair of losses to the defending state champion Flatonia Bulldogs on the campus of Mumford ISD.
An early Wildcat lead in Game 2 evaporated in a big inning for the Bulldogs, which would be the final time Big Sandy would hold a lead in the series. Games of 4-1 and 7-0 ended the year one step away from the state tournament.
“It didn’t finish how I wanted, but to get this far, I have never been this far either as a head coach, so it was a special season,” Big Sandy coach Jacob Hooker said. “We have never been past the regional semifinals, so they have marked down something that they can start building toward as a tradition. They have done everything that I’ve asked since day one — lift, playing fall ball, throwing programs, and they got better as the season went. They are just a treat to work with.”
Layton Vonberg continued his role of on-base machine, leading the Wildcats off with a walk to begin the contest. Griffin sacrificed him to second on a bunt fielded in front of the mound. On an 0-1 count, Austin Hendrix lifted a one-hopper to the left field wall, scoring VonBerg and putting the junior on second for an early advantage.
Ethan Cherry worked his way out of a bases loaded jam in the bottom half, before a 30-minute rain delay swept through the complex.
T.J. Lilley welcomed the Bulldogs back with a base hit through the middle and then advanced on a passed ball in the second. Seth Maze worked a full count, fouling off a few pitches until getting ball four. A great bunt from Kyle Lenox down the third base line with the third baseman covering the bag filled the sacks with runners and no one out. A strikeout and two pop ups ended what was building to be a breakthrough inning.
“In Game 2, we left way too many runners on,” Hooker said. “If we would have put just half of them in play instead of popping out, it might have been a different story. Ethan pitched well, we just didn’t put the ball in play and that hurt us. We misplayed a few balls, but when you leave 12 on base, you’re not going to win.”
Casen Novak got the Bulldogs started in the third with a double that drifted to the wall. Hendrix, catching for the game, fielded a bunt and fired to third to get the lead runner. Cherry took care of the next two batters on strikeouts to preserve the small lead.
A close play at first with one out put Matthew Kozelsky on with a bunt. Novak then hit a shot off Cherry’s leg and both runners were safe. After a fly to right, Kaddin Mikulik hit a two-out single, scoring Kozelsky and tying the game at one. In two starts, it was the first run Cherry had surrendered in 12 innings. The Bulldogs weren’t done, however. Braydon Mica hit a double to left field, scoring two more and giving Flatonia the first lead of the series.
That brought Brandon Hendrix into the game as a reliever. His first pitch hit a batter, giving the Bulldogs runners at first and second. A walk loaded the bases and another brought in the fourth run. That sent Justin Adams in to pitch, who got a strikeout to end the damage.
A leadoff walk to Novak and error on a bunt by Andrew Dvorak put the first two runners aboard to start Game 3. Another mishandled bunt from the bat of Mikulik loaded the bags with no outs. Mica doubled to right and an early 2-0 lead had momentum on the side of the Bulldogs.
Kozelsky and Novak started Flatonia again in the second with one-out base hits. A hit batsman loaded the bases. Mikulik singled in a run and a walk allowed the fourth run to cross. After two innings, the Bulldogs held a 4-0 lead.
Flatonia would add a run in the third, fourth and sixth innings to push the gap to 7-0.
Cherry beat out an infield single in his final at bat for the Wildcats to lead off the seventh, but it was all they would get in the ‘Cats final time at bat. Flatonia’s Easton Migl threw all seven innings, posting 13 strikeouts and allowing just two hits.
“The kid that pitched Game 3 had mono, so he had been out for a couple of weeks,” Hooker said. “He’s pretty good.”
For the year, Big Sandy has a record of 28-7-1 and advanced further in the playoffs than any team they have put on the field.
Hooker believes there is plenty of reason his team of youngsters could also put together a memorable season next year.
“We have a really good group coming up,” he said. “We’re going to be really young and probably start four or five sophomores, but we will have a really strong nucleus and that freshman class could be really special.”
Behind a big third inning and a one-hit performance on the mound, Big Sandy took the opening match over the defending state champion Flatonia Bulldogs in a best-of-three series, 4-0 on the campus of Mumford ISD.
“You couldn’t ask for a better performance,” Big Sandy coach Jacob Hooker said. “It was second-batter singles and that is it. Hendrix pitched his tail off. We had good approaches the first time around too. The momentum of Austin on the mound the whole game allowed us to keep the momentum.”Layton VonBerg got the offense off to a positive start with a liner to center field in the first inning. Right behind him, Ben Griffin slapped a bouncer past a diving glove at third base. After a fly out, Ethan Cherry worked a full count before walking. Ryan Brown hit a fly ball to right, but the runner at third failed to tag up. What should have been a 1-0 lead had turned into a double play.
“Our base running was atrocious and it was the first thing I addressed out there with them,” Hooker said.
Lead off hitter VonBerg again found his way on base with a Texas Leaguer to begin the third. Griffin, once again, smacked a single, this time to center field. After two fly outs, Ryan Brown sliced a double down the right field line to score VonBerg and put the ‘Cats up by one.
“I was just trying to find a gap somewhere and hope that we could get in a run,” Brown said. “I knew he had a decent curveball and I have been having trouble with that.”
T.J. Lilley was beaned, loading the bags for Seth Maze. The Big Sandy second baseman worked a walk to bring in Griffin for a 2-0 lead. Kyle Lenox then drove a pitch over shortstop, clearing the way for two more scores to cap a four-run frame. All runs were scored with two outs.
“His curveball wasn’t really working and most of his breaking balls weren’t,” Lenox said of his big at-bat. “You wait until he throws meat right down there and just try to take it.”
Lenox, one of the team’s most patient hitters, had seen plenty of pitches by the end of his second trip to the plate. He also drew two walks in the game.
“Kyle came up with a huge hit to push it from two to four,” Hooker said. “Expanding the lead was big, because they threatened in the next few innings.”
Kaddin Mikulik started the Bulldogs with a one-out base on balls in the top half of the fourth. He stole second and was moved to third on a bounce out. With two away, Blaine Besetzny tagged a liner that Maze ran down to end the threat.
VonBerg was back leading off in the fourth and doing what he does best. The shortstop reached base with yet another hit, giving him three for the game in just the fourth inning. Griffin followed with his third, as well. After putting the first two on, Bulldog pitcher Nick Flores was stingy, not allowing a run.
Hendrix issued a four-pitch walk to Easton Migl after a strikeout in the fifth. Migl took second after two pitches to San Juan Ramirez. Ramirez pushed a bunt down the first base line, sacrificing Migl to third. Hendrix found his next strikeout victim in Matthew Kozelsky, who flailed at a curveball that tailed away from him.
“We were just working in and out and hitting spots,” Brown said of calling the game for his pitcher.
“I think the first two innings it took me awhile to get settled in,” Hendrix said. “They were jumping on me pretty quick and hitting hard shots. After that, I kind of settled down and found my groove and worked in the change-up more than I have been. I had my defense behind me again and that’s all you need. I was looking for the least amount of pitches on my arm possible.”
Needing three outs, Hendrix toed the rubber for a final time in the seventh. Braydon Mica opened the inning with a grounder to shortstop for the first out. Besetzny hit a dribbler that the catcher Brown handled for two down.
Flores was the final challenge. On a 1-2 count, Hendrix got a swing and miss to close the game. The Big Sandy pitcher would finish with 11 strikeouts, while surrendering just one hit in the complete game shutout.
The Big Sandy Wildcats took the final two games of its best-of-three series with Refugio to advance to the Regional Finals.
The contests were won by margins of 6-0 and 9-4, after the Wildcats were no-hit in the series opener.
“I think the rain helped us stop their momentum, because they looked a lot different on Thursday than they did Saturday,” Big Sandy coach Jacob Hooker said. “They were stunned when we hopped on them 2-0 and I think that momentum carried us into Game 3.
“They took a 2-0 lead in Game 3, but we hit a home run and it just changed the momentum of the game. You could see the deflation in their face. They haven’t had to play from behind all year. They made some quotes and said some things that we found on Facebook and Twitter that I won’t say here, but I relayed it to our kids to let them know. I think that was motivation for them. We just played great baseball — we really did. Someone told me this is the farthest the school has ever been, so it is a pretty neat little deal.”
Ethan Cherry shined in the first contest, pitching a complete game shutout and holding the Bobcats to four hits. The senior would also pick up six strikeouts, only walking two.
“Ethan had them off balance and they just rolled over and popped up,” Hooker said. “That was the best game I have seen him pitch this year by far.”
Six errors were a big reason for the Bobcat struggles. Big Sandy scored two runs in the third, sixth and seventh innings to force a winner-take-all final match.
Ben Griffin had two hits and two RBIs at the plate, while Ryan Brown also drove in a pair.
“A lot of us were tired from the games that we were playing, but we just kept it going and made defensive plays,” second baseman Seth Maze said. “We just wanted to keep them from scoring and keep the lead going.”
“It was crazy in the dugout and it was loud,” senior Preston Cain said. “We were all screaming and slapping each other.”
Game 3 started off with a two-run inning from the Bobcats in the first, after the Wildcats were held scoreless in the first.
Jacobe Avery, who was part of a no-hitter thrown on Thursday versus the Wildcats, was not nearly as effective, as Big Sandy hitters were able to put the bat on the ball much more.
“A lot more intensity,” Kyle Lenox said of the difference in the two games. “The pitching speed was a difference, trying to adjust (in Game 1). There wasn’t that much of a change the second string to the third string pitcher on Saturday. We were just more prepared in (Game 3) to hit and play good defense.”
The first inning would be the last time in the game Big Sandy would have a problem scoring. Base runners crossed home plate at least once in each of the following six innings, surpassing the Bobcats for good in the third with a three-run inning.
“We got a couple of base hits and bunted some people over. Ethan just kind of threw his hands and hit a ball into the outfield and two runs came in to put us up, 4-2,” Hooker said. “It just kind of went from there.”
Though T.J. Lilley started on the hill for the Wildcats in Game 3, Cherry, Griffin and Austin Hendrix would all see time on the there. Lilley went two and two-thirds innings, striking out five. Cherry returned after tossing seven frames in Game 2 to go an inning and two-thirds and punch out three.
“I think it’s the first time I pitched one game and then came back and pitched in another,” Cherry said. “I told coach after the first game (on Saturday) that I could go a few Innings if I needed to. It wasn’t a problem.”
He was also instrumental in helping put up a consistent offensive attack, with four runs driven in, including a home run.
“My first at-bat that game, they got two runs and we didn’t do so well. I just wanted to get it down somewhere, but he threw it right over the middle and I made him pay for it,” Cherry said of the homer. “After that I just kind of stayed hot.”
Junior Austin Hendrix took the ball with the bases loaded and two out in the eighth, striking out a batter to work out of a jam. Two additional insurance runs crossed the plate in the seventh for the Wildcats, more than Hendrix would need to finish off the Bobcats.
“It was nice to have them,” Hendrix said of the extra protection. “I was kind of worn out, so I wanted them to put the ball in play and let my defense play behind me. I gave it my all.”
“I told them if anybody walked two batters, I was going to pull them,” Hooker said. “Everybody was available and we needed four outs to end the game. I went out there to talk to Ethan and Austin said he wanted the ball. I’m not going to take it away from my horse. He got up there and threw 15 pitches total and got the four outs we needed. He got a big strikeout with the bases loaded and got two more strikeouts and a ground ball to get out of there.”
The challenges only get tougher from here. Flatonia, the defending state champions, will be the last obstacle standing between the team and the state tournament in Round Rock.
“Flatonia is the defending state champs and they are going to bunt and play the game right,” Hooker said. “They hustle out of the box and defensively they’re pretty good. They do everything right. They run the bases correctly, hit their cuts on defense, and will not make many mistakes. They don’t have any really big power arms, but they have two guys that can get up and go and are going to be really good on the mound. The coach has done a great job with them and has been to the state tournament three out of the last five years. He played for the state championship all three of those times. He obviously has that program as top-notch in 2A. He is where we would like to be.”
Currently, all contests this week are scheduled for play at Mumford High School. Game 1 is on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Game 2 is Saturday at 3 p.m., with Game 3, if necessary, 30 minutes after the conclusion of Game 2.
Needing extra innings to advance into the Regional Semifinal round Friday, Big Sandy won a battle of 10 frames, needing defense and pitching to outlast the Thorndale Bulldogs 5-4 in Tomball.
The Wildcats received strong outings from pitchers Ethan Cherry and Ben Griffin to complete the sweep. Thorndale’s Logan Fisher was tough in defeat, throwing all 10 innings for the Bulldogs.
Scoring threats were extinguished in the seventh and ninth innings to secure the win.
In the tenth inning, Austin Hendrix led off with a single and stole second on an 0-2 count. Cherry struckout, but the ball was dropped and Hendrix moved up to third on the throw down to first. T.J. Lilley smashed a hit past shortstop to drive in the go-ahead run at 5-4.
“I knew the infield was going to be up, and when the infield is up, your odds of getting a hit is a whole lot more,” Lilley said. “I was looking for a fastball and I got it on the first pitch. I capitalized on it and it was definitely the biggest hit of my life. There is nothing better.”
Ben Griffin, who took the mound in the eighth inning, needed three outs. Just four days before, the senior was hospitalized with what was originally thought to be appendicitis.
“I had some sort of virus and just couldn’t play for two days,” Griffin said. “I was nervous. I could have gone longer, but I was nervous. I just wanted to throw strikes.”
The first out was a bouncer to third. The second on three strikes. The final batter was Michael Turman, who had given the Wildcats problems while pitching the day before and by driving in a run earlier in the contest. On a 1-2 count, Turman hit a fly ball to left field that made the warning track, but was caught by Cody Adams, ending the game.
“We misplayed a few balls and Ethan just kept throwing and pounding the zone,” Big Sandy coach Jacob Hooker said. “I don’t know how many times we bailed ourselves out with defense. We had a big inning early and then kind of fluttered off. We had a passed ball where we got lucky. Austin steals a bag and we got strike three in the dirt to get him over to third. T.J. came up with the biggest hit of his life. Ben didn’t get to play last series for us, but he came in and was just absolutely lights out for us on the mound. I am so proud of everybody. We get to play another week.”
A throw from second pulled the first baseman from the bag in the second inning on a Ryan Brown bouncer. He then stole second and was driven in when Seth Maze tripled off the right field wall. Justin Adams then doubled off the same wall, sending Maze home. A base hit from Layton VonBerg brought the Wildcat right fielder around to score, providing a 3-0 cushion.
Tyler Richter hit an infield single to shortstop and was followed by a double from Ashton Shaefer. With two in scoring position, Turman smashed a single down the third base line to bring in one. A grounder to shortstop scored another when the double play could not be turned. The throw at first was missed, but T.J. Lilley picked up the drop and fired to second to beat the runner there.
After two innings, Big Sandy led 3-2.
Ryan Blair was hit by a pitch and thrown out at third on a relay started by Adams in right field in the third inning. On the hit, Scott Guzman landed at second. Trey Ortiz followed with a single, putting runners on the corners. With a full count, Ortiz took a sizable lead on first. When Cherry faked his way, Guzman charged for home. Cherry threw to the plate, where catcher Ryan Brown was waiting to put on the tag. Ashton Albert walked and Richter singled, loading the bags. On a full count, Cherry tossed a knee-high fastball for the strikeout.
In the fourth, Shaefer singled and with two out would be driven in on a triple by Blair. A wild pitch on ball four allowed Blair to score and take a 4-3 Bulldog lead.
“I started off real hot and in the second or third inning I started missing my spots a little,” Cherry said. “I would get ahead in the count on them, but I would just leave it over the plate and I shouldn’t have. They made me pay for it, but my defense helped me out a little. For the last few innings, I was around a 100-pitch count and I wasn’t tired yet. I felt like I was just getting loose, and that’s when I started kicking in again and hitting my spots.”
VonBerg stayed at first for one pitch after a one-out infield single. After stealing second, he was thrown out at third on a fielder’s choice to shortstop. Hendrix slapped a single, putting he and Ben Griffin at the corners for Cherry, who walked to load the bases. At 2-2 on T.J. Lilley, Fisher uncorked a wild pitch, scoring Hendrix and tying the game at four.
Lenox reached base on a single with one out. Cody Adams came in to pinch run for him. Justin Adams followed with a single, putting Cody on third. Garrett Lilley pinch ran for Justin and stole second on the second pitch to VonBerg. On a 1-2 count, the Wildcat shortstop lined to second, where a leaping catch and tag of the base put the inning away.
Guzman reached by error to lead off the seventh and advanced to second when a pickoff was mishandled. Ortiz sacrificed him to third and Albert and Richter were intentionally walked to load the bases for the force at any base. Cherry got a strikeout on Fisher and a pop fly to right field that drifted toward the line. Justin Adams ran to the corner and snared it with one hand to force extra innings.
The top of the Bulldog order was at it again in the the bottom of the ninth. Guzman grounded to first and beat a toss to the pitcher covering to lead off. A four-pitch walk put Ortiz on. Albert hit a liner to Justin Adams in right, who then doubled off Guzman at second. A chopper back to the mound ended the inning and set up the all-important tenth inning.
Capitalizing on mistakes and playing good defense behind a 12-strikeout performance on the hill, the Big Sandy Wildcats defeated Thorndale 3-2 Thursday at Tomball’s Premier Academy.
“We have talked about it, but it is better to be lucky than good,” Big Sandy coach Jacob Hooker said. “We had luck again tonight. Austin (Hendrix) pitched a great game and they had great approaches at the plate. I don’t know how many strikeouts we had, but not as many as the game before. They played good and we are going to have to come ready to play tomorrow. It is supposed to be like this in the third round. Nobody is going to be bad.”
A walk and dropped third strike had two runners in scoring position for the Bulldogs in the opening frame, but Hendrix found his way out of the inning, collecting three strikeouts.
Layton VonBerg led the offense off in the bottom half with a four-pitch free pass. With one out, an infield single from Hendrix put two on. Cherry moved a runner to third with a pop up and Ben Griffin hit a soft grounder that remained just inside the chalk to load the bases with two out. A strikeout from Thorndale’s Michael Turman ended the threat without a run.
T.J. Lilley started the next inning reaching by error. Kyle Lenox moved him to second with a sac bunt. With two out, VonBerg popped a fly ball to right field that was misjudged, allowing Lilley to score for a 1-0 lead.
“I keep going up there with an approach and looking fastball,” VonBerg said of his ability to get on base. “It keeps getting thrown to me and I love it, so I just pepper it and put it in play.”
A walk put Kyle Lenox on in the fourth, but he was soon erased on a fielder’s choice. The new runner, Seth Maze, stole second and was sent to third on an error off the bat of VonBerg. Maze then scored the game’s second run on a wild pitch.
A infield single by Cherry put him on to lead off the fifth. Running with a full count, Griffin grounded to third and was thrown out at first. However, Cherry rounded second and dove into third in time. At third, Cherry was caught in a rundown after Bulldog catcher Mason Fisher threw down the line. The throw from third to home was high and bounced to the backstop. After five innings, Big Sandy held a 3-0 advantage.
“Honestly, I was wanting the steal sign the whole game and I finally got it my last at-bat,” Cherry said. “I was rounding second that last at-bat when Ben hit the ball — I guess to third, I don’t know where it went — and it looked like coach was wheeling it for me (sign to advance bases), so I just took off. When I got on third, I was watching the coach and I thought he gave the squeeze sign to the batter. I wasn’t so sure, it looked like it. I thought I would take off, trying just in case. I saw him square, so I thought squeeze. It didn’t land and I was terrified. They overthrew and I’ll take that.”
Ashton Albert started the Thorndale offense in the bottom half of the fifth with a double to right-center field. An infield single from Tyler Richter had runners on the corners. Fisher singled, scoring Albert and was followed by a Turman bunt that prompted a throwing error. Another run scored, making it a one-run game at 3-2.
Logan Fisher then grounded to VonBerg at shortstop and the senior made the throw to home to protect the lead. Catcher Ryan Brown caught the toss on the far side of the plate and lunged to make a quick tag of a sliding ankle. With two away, Hendrix got the final out with a swing and miss.
“They were a lot better, Hendrix said. “They could actually touch my fastball. They were kind of late on it, but they caught up to it after about two or three innings. I didn’t have as many strikeouts tonight, but I would rather have no strikeouts in a win than a lot and a loss. When they got the first run, luckily we had the insurance runs. I just had confidence in myself with our defense behind me.”
That left the final inning.
Hendrix fielded the first out on a tapper that just made the grass. Guzman walked, bringing up Trey Ortiz. Again Hendrix needed to become a fielder. He gloved the bouncer and came up throwing to shortstop VonBerg, who hadn’t yet reached second to cover.
“He led me to it; it was a good play,” VonBerg said of the Hendrix throw to him.
The shortstop tapped the bag at second and relayed to first to complete a game-ending double play.
The Wildcats will look to win one of two games Friday to move on to the Regional Semifinals.