Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Improbable Odyssey

Posted by JimR On August - 3 - 2006

The best time of my life began with a disappointment.  Although my 1997 Austin McCallum High School Knights returned starters at catcher, shortstop, second base, and right field, a front-line reserve at first base, and a bonus baby-major-leaguer-to-be pitcher/third baseman, we finished third in our district.  Fortunately, for the first time the Texas University Interscholastic League allowed three teams from each district to advance to the playoffs leading to the State Tournament.  After barely surviving a scary game against a weak opponent in the final district game, the Knights clinched third place and prepared to enter the playoffs, thanks to the UIL’s new rule.  The season that began with so much promise escaped being a disaster by the smallest of margins, and although we were a 17-8 playoff team, my disappointment in our finish was almost tangible.

I was not optimistic that we would advance very far.  We were a veteran team with no glaring weaknesses, but we underachieved in the crucial district games.  Our lack of success in big games was perplexing to me.  We could hit the ball.  Senior shortstop Matt Elkjer and junior pitcher/third baseman Matt Belisle were our stars.  Each had been a starter since the ninth grade, and they hit over .400, led the team in RBI and were our best hitters.  We did not have an automatic out in the lineup.  Rightfielder Eric Whited also had power, catcher Juan Facundo and second baseman Mike Carmona had many important hits, and first baseman Mark Raup, the coach’s son, hit well over .300.  

At times we played great defense.  Our double play combination of Elkjer and Carmona was outstanding.  Rightfielder Whited and centerfielder Scott Williams, a freshman, had speed and excellent arms.  I used several players in left field.  All were adequate, and Kent Evans emerged as the starter for much of the playoffs.  Facundo had very good defensive skills at catcher and a strong and accurate arm.  Third basemen Belisle and David Zuniga, who played when Belisle pitched, were solid defenders, and first basemen Raup and Kevin Ryden, a regular defensive replacement, also played well defensively.  Belisle, a 6’3″ righthander with a 90 plus fastball and a sharp overhand curve, was one of the state’s top pitchers.  Our second pitcher, Danny Gray, was a reliable control pitcher with an excellent curve, but no other pitcher had been consistent or dependable during the season.  On paper, especially with Belisle pitching, we appeared to be a very good team, but because we did not play well in our most important games, I was not confident about our chances against the state’s best teams.  
The UIL’s 4A classification playoff bracket required Austin teams to face opponents in the southeastern quarter of the state.  The big dogs lurked in that region; on the list of possible opponents for any team hoping to advance through the region were Hays Consolidated, Robstown and Boerne, all of which were ranked in Class 4A’s Top 10 at the end of the regular season, and Corpus Christi Calallen, the state’s top-ranked 4A team.  No one at McCallum was thinking that far ahead as the playoffs began, least of all the coach.  We lost an extra inning first round game the previous year to Casey Fossum and Waco Midway, and my goal for this team was a modest one:  win at least one playoff game before elimination.
UIL rules allow a playoff series to be either one game or two out of three games.  In 1997, either coach could mandate a single game, but if the coaches agreed to play a three-game series, the games must be played on Friday and Saturday.  The Knights had one great pitcher and one good pitcher but absolutely no one else to pitch at the level necessary to advance.  Our lack of pitching depth made a three-game series over a two-day period impossible.  I decided that we would play a one game playoff in each round until we lost.  I thought single elimination was our only chance to advance.  Belisle would start each game, Gray would be in relief, and our two pitchers would have plenty of rest if we won because we would play only one game each week.
I correctly anticipated resistance from opposing coaches to my requiring a one-game playoff.  With only one exception, each opposing coach complained bitterly that a single game was “not fair.”  Those coaches, of course, did not want to face the prospect of elimination if their teams could not beat Belisle in the single chance they would have.  To my way of thinking, however, a one-game playoff was the most fair test of all:  their team was rested, my team was rested; their best pitcher against my best pitcher.  Besides, the Texas State Tournament is a Final Four single elimination format with no three-game series.  I did not listen very long to the coaches’ protests; the rules allowed it, and we would play a single game in each round no matter what opposing coaches said.
I almost always lost coin flips.  My team eventually insisted that I stop calling the flip so that they would have a chance to be the home team.  The Taylor Ducks were our first opponent, and I called the flip incorrectly.  Thus, the 1997 playoffs began for the McCallum Knights in Taylor on a bright, sunny day in May.  Summer had not yet arrived in Central Texas, and there was a brisk north wind blowing straight out to centerfield.  I thought this was a good omen because we had some fly ball hitters, and I was glad that this wind was not blowing in.  The Taylor baseball program was accustomed to being in the playoffs, but the Taylor pitchers were not overpowering.  I thought we could compete with them if Belisle was on his game.
Neither team did much until the third inning, but in that frame, our two stars played like stars.  Matt Elkjer singled in a run.  Then Matt Belisle, a switchhitter hitting lefthanded, hit a 3-run home run that rode the breeze over the left centerfield fence.  Up 4-0 with Belisle mowing them down, I was very confident that we would realize my goal of a playoff win.  Disaster struck with two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, however.
With two on and two out, the Taylor hitter lifted a high popup behind short.  As Elkjer drifted back, the wind I thought would help us pushed the ball away from him. Our leftfielder was slow to come up and hesitant to call for the ball.  Instead of ending the inning, the popup fell safely beyond the reach of our shortstop, and a run scored.  The leftfielder should have made the play easily, but he did not, and Taylor had an opportunity.  Inexplicably, Belisle faltered, and Taylor scored four more runs to take a 5-4 lead.  We were stunned by this unexpected misfortune, and when Mark Raup was called out on strikes to begin the sixth, I had a personal twinge of sadness that my son’s high school baseball career likely was over.  Our next two hitters went down meekly, and the Knights’ prospects looked bleak.
During Taylor’s half of the sixth, I discussed our coming at bat with one of my assistant coaches.  We had the top of the order up, and I told him to have Tony Chavez, a line drive hitter who often was our DH, ready to pinch hit.  Eric Whited, our cleanup hitter, was mired in a terrible slump the second half of the season, and Chavez would bat for him if we needed a hit to tie the game.  I told the coach to check with me because I might want Eric to hit if we had a runner at third and fewer than two out.  Eric hit long flies and would have a decent chance to produce a sacrifice fly, regardless of his slump.
We held Taylor scoreless in the bottom of the sixth and began the seventh with our leadoff hitter, Ricky Garza.  The Taylor pitcher got ahead quickly 0-2, but Ricky drew a walk after a great at bat.  Our next hitter, Kent Evans, was supposed to sacrifice, but he fouled off two attempted bunts.  Evans slapped the next pitch to deep short, and when the shortstop had no play, we had two on and no outs.  Perhaps wary of Elkjer’s reputation, the Taylor pitcher walked him on four pitches to load the bases.
Eric Whited was up, and I had to make a decision.  He had the toughest year imaginable on and off the field; his hitting slump was just part of baseball, but, tragically, his mother and best fan Barbara was battling the cancer that eventually took her life.  I decided to let him hit because of his fly ball potential, and he hit the first pitch well over the centerfield fence for a grand slam!  As Eric rounded the bases, my assistant coach yelled to me, “good no substitution.”  Before the inning ended, Belisle singled, and on a hit and run, Raup doubled the runner home for a 9-5 McCallum lead.  Belisle shut Taylor out in their half of the seventh, and the Knights had accomplished my goal of a playoff win.
Our second round opponent was the Hays Consolidated Rebels, led by lefthanded pitcher Coy Lowden, a University of Texas signee.  The Rebels were 21-4 champions of their district and enjoyed a long tradition of playoff success.  Because district champions received a first round bye, we were Hays’ first opponent.  The Rebels’ coach did not try to conceal his supreme confidence in this second round match-up.  He called the coin flip incorrectly, however, so we were able to play at Nelson Field in Austin, our home field.  This was our only home game in the playoffs.
Belisle was tough, but Lowden was tougher.  Hays scratched out two runs against us, and as we prepared to hit in the bottom of the fifth inning, the Knights had no runs and no hits.  Juan Facundo led off the inning, and I told him to “take a strike.”  This meant that the hitter must not swing at a pitch until after a strike was called.  Taking a strike was standard operating procedure for the Knights when we were behind in the late innings.
Incredibly, Lowden walked Facundo, Raup and Carmona on twelve straight pitches, with each hitter taking a strike that never came.  We still had no hits, but we had the bases loaded, and the Hays coach removed Lowden for a relief pitcher.  The new pitcher walked in a run to narrow their lead to 2-1, but with the infield in, he got the first out on a force out at home.  Tony Chavez, our almost-pinch hitter in Taylor, blooped a two-run double over the drawn-in infield for a 3-2 McCallum lead, and Whited tripled over the rightfielder’s head for two more runs.  The Hays defense, no doubt shaken by this strange turn of events, then fell apart.  Multiple errors allowed three insurance runs to cross the plate, and we led 8-2 after five.  Elkjer singled in our ninth run in the sixth, and Belisle cruised through the Hays hitters for the final six outs to secure a 9-2 win.  The win may have been a bit miraculous, but it counted, and the McCallum Knights were headed into the lofty reaches of the regional quarterfinals.  I was beginning to believe that something unusual was happening to us.
Next was the 25-4 Boerne Greyhounds.  Boerne won the first two games in its series with Austin Anderson High School, champions of our district and our nemesis.  Although Boerne was a powerful hitting team and their lefthanded pitcher was at least Belisle’s equal, I was glad to be playing them.  We rarely played well against Anderson, our bitter rival, and our players seemed to try too hard to beat them, with spectacularly unsuccessful results.  We had no recent history of failure with Boerne and knew nothing about them.  I saw them beat Anderson 1-0 to win their second round series, and I thought that we could play with them.  That was all my team needed to know.
The Boerne coach was a class act.  He did not complain about a one-game playoff.  He also offered Nelson Wolff Stadium in San Antonio as the site for our game if I would agree to be visiting team.  I was happy to do so in return for the opportunity to play in the Texas League home of the San Antonio Missions.  On the day of the game, I took my team to the field several hours early in the hopes that the “new” would wear off by game time.  As I expected, my players cavorted and gamboled all over Wolff Stadium.  They explored every unlocked nook and cranny of the stadium, took numerous photos, and generally behaved like six-year-olds at Disneyland.  By batting practice, though, they had calmed down and were ready to play.  Thank goodness they were ready because the Boerne team was all we could handle.  Fortunately for us, the Knights played their best game of the season.
Cory Stewart, Boerne’s junior lefthander, was unscored upon in the postseason and came into the game with a streak of 30 consecutive scoreless innings.  After Stewart struck out the side in the top of the first, it was obvious that we also would have trouble scoring off him.  Belisle had an overpowering fastball and was throwing his curve for strikes.  He only struck out six, but our defense made every play.  Boerne got a runner to third with two outs in the third and runners to second and third with two outs in the sixth, but Belisle pitched out of both situations easily.  Stewart dominated the McCallum hitters during a 12-strikeout, 4-hit performance.  This great game came down to who made the first mistake, and it was Boerne.
With one out in the top of the fourth, Matt Elkjer singled.  Stewart had completely stopped our “run on first movement” tactic with his uncanny ability to adjust to the runner’s break and throw to first in the midst of his delivery.  He picked off two of our runners and forced me to abandon the strategy.  He tried to pick Elkjer off too, and likely would have, but his bad throw rolled into the right field corner and allowed Elkjer to reach third.  Apparently rattled, Stewart walked Whited to put runners at the corners.  Belisle topped the ball out in front of the plate, and after a hesitation and a glance at Elkjer to keep him at third, the Boerne catcher rushed his throw to first.  When the throw also went wildly into the right field corner, we scored two runs, and Belisle made it all the way to third.  Facundo singled for a 3-0 lead that looked insurmountable.
After escaping the Boerne threat in the sixth by getting Stewart to fly out to center, Belisle gave up a leadoff single in the bottom of the seventh.  Assistant Coach David Lowery, who worked tirelessly with our infielders, said to me, “We need a double play now.”  On command, the next pitch resulted in a 6-4-3 twin killing, and our bench erupted with excitement.  Belisle disposed of the final hitter on a comebacker to him, and we had advanced to the regional semifinals.
My team was relaxed and playing well, despite the pressure of the playoffs, and I was enjoying the ride.  While coaching at third against Boerne, I unintentionally provided fodder for their ability to stay relaxed.  We had a runner approaching third, and I backpedaled as fast as I could to wave him around the bag.  As I ran backwards, I stepped into a sprinkler depression, fell on my backside hard, and performed an involuntary back somersault.  My glasses went flying, and I remember thinking that I hoped no one caught my spectacular pratfall on video.  After briefly considering faking an injury to stay down, I got to my feet and observed uncontrolled hilarity in our dugout.  Near the end of the game, my unfortunate son was the target of Boerne hecklers.  Their final salvo as the inning ended was “Hey, number 16, you’re fat, and your dad can’t stand up!”  Mark flashed the 3-0 score, a one-finger salute, and ran off the field to the winners’ dugout.  The 1997 playoffs were about to lead the Knights into the path of two of the most storied teams in Texas 4A baseball.
To those who follow Texas high school baseball closely, the Robstown Cotton Pickers are synonymous with winning and with perhaps the most intimidating home field advantage in the State of Texas.  Robstown was 25-7 and was riding a 16-game winning streak.  Calallen and Robstown were in the same district, and Robstown’s home field dominance included a win over Calallen.  True to form, I lost the coin flip, and we had to face Robstown on their home field.  More than a few of my baseball friends called to console me because “no one wins at Robstown.”
Mother Nature tried to help us avoid the snakepit home field advantage.  Heavy rain inundated coastal Texas late in the week, and high school coaches scrambled to find dry fields.  I won the race to get the Houston Astrodome as a possible venue for our Saturday game, but as luck would have it, the entire town of Robstown (only a slight exaggeration) worked all night to dry the field and to make it playable.  The day of the game was clear, sunny and hot, and the game was on.  
Robstown attempted to intimidate its opponents with a football crowd atmosphere and was uncommonly successful at doing so.  Around 5,000 fans dressed in red were in the stands a full two hours before the game.  Huge speakers placed around the park blared conjunto music at about a million decibels.  The noise was deafening, and the stands rocked when Robstown took the field for infield practice, the first round of which they took with an invisible ball.  To my pleasant surprise, my team appeared to be energized, not intimidated, by the raucous environment, and Mark asked me to trade him to Robstown because the electric atmosphere was so much fun.  We laughed when the music blaring for our infield practice was “YMCA.”
The Robstown pitcher was the third lefty we had faced in four playoff games.  We either were not intimidated by their home field advantage or were too dumb to be scared, and we got off to a great start with three runs in the top of the first inning.  Elkjer doubled in a run to get us rolling, and we added a run in the fourth on a Williams sacrifice fly.  Robstown chipped away with a run in the third and two more in the fourth to narrow the deficit to 4-3.  Clinging to this precarious lead, Belisle survived a scare in the fifth that turned on the game’s biggest single play.
Robstown’s big catcher led off the fifth, and Belisle did not retire him all day.  The slugger crushed the ball to left field and immediately went into his cadillac home run trot with numerous “pump ‘em up” gestures as he strutted toward first base.  Trouble was, the ball had overspin, hit near the top of the left field fence, and rebounded directly to our leftfielder.  By the time the Robstown hitter strolled around the first base bag, the ball was in our second baseman’s hands.  In shock, the hitter returned to first and asked, “What just happened?”  When told the ball had not gone out, he said, “Oh, no.  Coach is going to kill me.”  Sure enough, when we forced him out at second on the next play, the Robstown coach met him at the third base line, chewed him out in full view of God and the crowd, took the batting helmet off of his head and kicked the helmet over the fence behind their dugout.  Funny stuff, and Belisle maintained our lead by retiring the side without giving up a run.
We put Robstown away with four runs in the top of the seventh inning to take an 8-3 lead with three outs to go.  In the middle of the rally, I atoned for an earlier mistake. Two walks and two errors brought in a run with one out, and we had runners on first and third.  Facundo was at the plate with a 3-2 count, and I wanted to put on the suicide squeeze play.  Facundo did not look at me for a sign and hit the next pitch foul.  I risked losing the element of surprise by telling him to step out so I could give the squeeze sign, but I thought the play might be too unorthodox for them to expect it even after a series of signs.  I was right, and Juan got the bunt down perfectly to increase our lead to 6-3.  I cost us a run earlier in the game by not calling the squeeze, but Facundo’s execution made up for my mistake.
We scored two more in the seventh, including a two-out hit by our Mr. Clutch, Mike Carmona.  Robstown scored two meaningless runs in the bottom of the seventh, helped by a misplay in centerfield, but Belisle closed out our 8-5 regional semifinal victory.  We had accomplished the seemingly-impossible task of winning in Robstown, and we were in the regional finals, one game from the State Tournament.  To get to Austin and the Final Four, we would have to defeat the state’s number one ranked 4A team.  

Corpus Christi Calallen had reached the State Tournament in three of the past four years, and they carried a record of 31-4 into the regional final.  I knew nothing about the Wildcats team and made no attempt to find out anything other than they would pitch a lefthander.  My constant refrain for the games after Taylor was: “We’re not supposed to be here, and no one expects us to win.  Let’s just play the game and see how it comes out.”  This attitude, which the team appeared to adopt, seemed to help them relax and served us well.  I did not want to affect the team’s relaxed approach to the playoffs by giving them a detailed scouting report on an opponent that was an overwhelming favorite to beat us.  The players were having fun and were playing well.  I did not want to make them anxious about playing a superior opponent.
To describe Calallen’s coaches and players as arrogant would be a major understatement.  They knew quite well that we were a third place team, and they were totally convinced that we would not slow them down.  After all, Calallen was 65-6 over the past two seasons.  Their coaches, angry at me for forcing a one-game playoff, would not agree to anything I proposed concerning the game, and they finally made me angry too.  I told them to pick the day, time and field, and we would show up to play them.  They picked their “lucky field,” Blossom Field in San Antonio, and set the game for 2:00 p.m. so that they would not have to face Belisle under the lights.  Calallen, of course, won the flip for home team.  As promised, we showed up on a very hot Saturday afternoon for the biggest game in the history of our school.
The McCallum Knights came to play, and the ranking of the opponent mattered not at all.  We scored four in the top of the first inning and five more in the top of the third.  Included in the early bombardment were a three-run triple by Belisle, a three-run homer by Elkjer, and two RBI by Chavez.  We led 9-0 in the third and 10-1 after the top of the fourth.  I had a fleeting hope that we could score again and beat them by the playoffs’ mercy rule, but  I should have known better. That 31-4 team not only had great players but also had great pride.
Back came Calallen.  They scored four in the fourth to cut our lead to 10-5 and scored two in the sixth to close to 10-7.  Belisle was neither overpowering nor particularly sharp in the middle of the game, and the oppressive heat was taking its toll on him as the game progressed.  Our defense also showed some cracks during Calallen’s resurgence, and several of their hits were of the seven-hopper, seeing-eye variety.  I thought we could hold the lead, but Calallen obviously had regained its confidence, and we needed more runs.
Just as at Robstown, we scored in the top of the seventh to get some separation.  We loaded the bases for Belisle, and he missed a grand slam by about two feet when his opposite field blast to right sliced foul.  On the very next pitch, however, Matt doubled inside the third base bag, driving in two of his five RBI for the day.  Another clutch two-out single by Carmona pushed our lead to 13-7 with three outs to get.  We almost needed every run of that cushion.
Belisle’s plan for the seventh inning was to throw strikes on every pitch and to depend on his defense.  I am certain he was tired because it was so hot, but I would have needed a gun to remove him from the game.  Calallen’s first four hitters in the seventh reached base, and we helped this outburst by allowing a catchable ball to drop in centerfield.  Belisle rallied to strike out two consecutive hitters, but the next hitter dribbled an RBI single to bring the Wildcats to within three at 13-10.  With runners at first and second, Belisle induced a hard two-hopper right at Elkjer that would end the game.  Unbelievably, Elkjer booted the ball, and another run scored.  We now were clinging to a 13-11 lead with two on, and I was dying a slow and agonizing death.
Calallen’s winning run was in the batter’s box, but he popped up foul to the first base coach’s box.  Kevin Ryden, our late inning defensive replacement at first base, caught it falling backwards for the final out after initially misjudging its downward path.  The Calallen players and coaches were shocked into sullen silence, but McCallum’s players, coaches and fans went crazy in celebration.  Matt Belisle, now 14-4, pitched five complete games in the playoffs, and we averaged more than eight runs a game during our playoff run.  Cinderella indeed was going to the Ball, and the McCallum Knights were going to the State Tournament.

Alas, this fairy tale did not have a happy ending at Disch-Falk Field in Austin.  The wheels flew off of Cinderella’s coach in our State Tournament semifinal game against Dallas Highland Park, and we played poorly in all facets of the game.  A baserunning mistake kept us from scoring in the top of the first inning, and Highland Park scored three in the first and added another run in the second.  We stayed close early with a triple by Belisle, a double by Raup, a single by Carmona, and a three-run triple by Whited, but a six-run third inning enabled Highland Park to pull away.  They only hit four balls hard all day, but we did not make the defensive plays we should have made and had been making.  Highland Park eliminated us 13-5, and our season ended one game short of the championship game.  We lost to a team we should have beaten, but every team we had played the previous five weeks said the same thing about us.  We finished with a record of 22-9 as State Semifinalists and in a tie for third place in the final 4A rankings.
The artificial turf at Disch-Falk tremendously affected our play.  Our infielders were taking a step back on each initial bounce, and our outfielders were not coming in aggressively on pop flies.  Highland Park hitters reached on several grounders that we either threw away rushing the throw or that we made a play on too late, and several catchable balls fell safely in front of outfielders for bloop hits.  I practiced the team on an artificial turf football field, and in retrospect, that was a mistake.  The football field was far more springy and bouncy than the Disch-Falk turf, and practice on the football field thoroughly spooked my players about having to play on turf.  In fact, the turf at Disch-Falk was no faster than the sun-baked infield in San Antonio the week before, but by the time we adjusted to the turf field, it was too late.  

I did not prepare my team well for the State Tournament, and that I did not bothers me to this day.  I blame the coach for the defeat.  After our victories against the state’s most successful baseball programs in the very hostile environments that our opponents chose, I mistakenly believed that my team would not be nervous playing at home in front of 5,000 people cheering for them.  I could not have been more wrong, and our early shakiness, especially on defense, put us in a hole from which we could not recover.  I should have spent far more time than I did on our mental approach to the game.  I simply misjudged their mental state on that big day, and by doing so, I did not give them the best opportunity to play well.
Nothing that happened at Disch-Falk could diminish the accomplishments of that special team.  The 1997 McCallum Knights were a true team in every good and positive nuance of “team.”  We had two stars, but they did not behave like stars.  We had many role players who contributed greatly to our success and who were not jealous or envious of the stars.  We won in the most difficult surroundings imaginable.  We defeated the state’s best teams.  We became the media’s darlings after the win at Robstown; Craig Way’s “Texas High School Extra,” a statewide television program, had a cameraman at the Robstown game, and we were featured on his program after our win.  We were a Cinderella story throughout Texas.
For the next two weeks after our win at Robstown, newspaper reporters, photographers and television cameras were at each practice.  Craig Way featured us again on his program before the State Tournament.  I made sure that the reporters also interviewed role players so that the media did not focus entirely on Belisle and Elkjer.  I think all the players learned something about dealing with the media and with celebrity, and I know all of us enjoyed reading about McCallum in the paper and seeing our interviews on television.  One article in particular illustrated how unselfish this team was.
Prior to the State Tournament, the Austin newspaper did an article featuring Danny Gray, our second pitcher.  He selflessly watched Belisle pitch every playoff inning and did not complain or pout about not pitching.  Danny had been a two-year starter at quarterback on the football team and was a fierce competitor.  I know not playing was killing him inside, but he rooted hard for Belisle and for the team.  With a chance to grumble publicly about his inactivity, he told the reporter, “If I was the coach and had Matt, I would just pitch him too.”  Danny was available for relief each week and would have pitched the state championship game.  I put him in to pitch the final two innings of the Highland Park game so that he could experience the thrill of State Tournament competition.
The reporter’s story line was to explain why this previously unremarkable group had reached the Final Four.  He wrote, “The Knights feature stars Belisle and . . . Elkjer, a bunch of role players like Gray, and no animosity.”  Matt Elkjer, our star shortstop, told the reporter that “everybody does his job and knows his role on the team.  Everyone hits up and down the lineup.  As far as anybody feeling two guys are carrying the team, they’re not.”  Role player Tony Chavez said of Belisle and Elkjer, “They are our biggest contributors. . . . They should get a lot of attention.”  Another role player, Mark Raup, said, “We don’t do much complaining.  We’re just happy for any attention we get for our school.”  Finally, Chavez expressed his and the team’s confidence in Danny Gray: “I think Danny would do a great job for us.  He’s stepped up all year.”  These “team first” sentiments are foreign to today’s “me first” world of athletics, and knowing my team’s faith in one another and experiencing the complete absence of cliques, envy, jealousy and animosity on this team made me as proud of them as I was for their play.  Talent aside, this was a fantastic group of young men who learned what it meant to be part of a team.
Perhaps as important, I learned a lot about Coach Raup during our playoff run.  More than at any other time in my coaching life, I let the players play the games without much interference from me.  I tried to recognize the time in each game when my decisions could have a major impact on the game, like the 3-2 squeeze against Robstown, but I tried not to overcoach them into anxiety and tightness.  I learned that a coach does not have to control every aspect of a game to have his players excel.
I attempted to develop a relaxed team attitude about these very important games against opponents the pundits said we could not beat.  My assistants and I were low key about our opponents and told the team only whether the pitcher was righthanded or lefthanded.  We made no attempt to obtain scouting reports or to discuss individual players.  We rarely mentioned our coming opponent in practice but rather focused on how we were going to play.  I believe much of our success resulted from our “just play the game and see how it comes out” approach to the games.  We played loose and had fun, and the talent of our players was not stifled by self-imposed or coach-imposed pressure.  When at the State Tournament we did not play with the relaxed attitude we demonstrated the previous five weeks, our lack of success did not surprise me.
Finally, I relished every moment of those six weeks, and I tried to convey to my team how extraordinary those times were.  When I was a young coach in Brenham on my way to a state championship, correcting past mistakes was extremely important to me. Mere victory was not enough, and in those days I spent a large part of each post-game talk dissecting the previous game and pointing out our mistakes.  Not so in the 1997 playoffs, but I may have gotten smart too late.
As the Boerne game wound down, I became acutely aware of how incredibly special this time in our lives was.  Immediately after the post-game congratulations, for the first time in my coaching life, I made no effort to get the team around me for a talk.  Instead, I told them to celebrate the win with their families and friends and I would talk to them on the bus.  This became our post-game routine for the duration of the playoffs.  

Before the Robstown game, the team came to my room for a weather and field condition report, and after telling them the field was playable, I limited my pre-game speech to, “Let’s win tomorrow and get the hell out of Robstown.”  After the Robstown win, I got on the bus and asked them, “Do you realize what you have just done?”  After defeating Calallen, I told them how proud I was of their accomplishment, and I walked through the bus to shake each player’s hand.  I learned that I could forget the team’s mistakes quickly and concentrate on enjoying the incomparable experience of competing at Texas high school baseball’s highest level.  

Each week I encouraged them to take pleasure from our shared experiences, as I was, rather than to dwell on the minute details of their past performance.  I almost completely eliminated my usual post-game routine of discussing our mistakes thoroughly.  Instead, I endeavored to emphasize how fortunate we were to be a part of this exciting competition. We played our best against the best and advanced to the next round; nothing that happened before really mattered. Winning the next game was important, of course, but to enjoy each moment of these unforgettable events became my goal for me and for the team.  Except for Belisle, who now is a major league pitcher, I doubt that any of the Knights had or will have athletic accomplishments that compare to those six weeks in the spring and summer of 1997.  I hope they enjoyed every wonderful moment of those times.
The title to this piece came from the Corpus Christi newspaper reporter?s story of our regional final victory over Calallen.  He wrote, “Austin McCallum High School continued its improbable odyssey through the Class 4A baseball playoffs Saturday, eliminating top-ranked Calallen. . . .”  I love that phrase because “improbable odyssey” aptly described this team’s journey to the State Tournament.  Our advance to the State Tournament was so improbable: a third place team defeated the elite programs in Texas high school baseball by playing together and by relying on and believing in one another.  Those six weeks were the best time of my life.
Playoff baseball is intense, exciting and fun; the pressure is real and, at times, can be suffocating.  A team must survive and advance with no second chance.  Champions welcome the intensity, handle the pressure, and play well under even the most adverse conditions.  Despite the outcome of their final game, these Knights were champions.  Future McCallum teams may have more talent or may advance farther or may one day win the State Championship.  No McCallum team, however, will ever play the game with more heart or with more courage or against greater odds.  I am thankful and proud to have been a part of the improbable odyssey of the 1997 McCallum Knights.  This, my friends, was a TEAM.

Comments are closed.