For anyone who saw an abnormally large Evangel roster during last season’s Class 2A state baseball tournament, Tim Hulett can explain.
Said Hulett, the Eagles head coach: “It’s because I knew I was going to graduate a lot of guys. That next group coming in, a bunch of them were going to be in the starting lineup. I knew the more they had traveled and experienced, the better off we would be.”
Down the stretch, Evangel (22-12) has played as well as it had at any other point in the season.
The Eagles, seeded third in the Class 2A bracket, carry a 10-game winning streak into Friday’s 10 a.m. state semifinal against 15th-seeded Kinder at ULM’s Warhawk Field.
After losing a senior class headed by Washington Nationals sixth-round draft pick Hayden Jennings, a bit of a letdown could be expected. One look at the signage underneath the scoreboard in left-center field at Durwood Rust Field erases that thought.
Spelled out in white on a red background are the years of Evangel’s state championships, three of which have come since 2006.
“The winning, sometimes here at Evangel, is just expected,” Hulett said. “I think it’s something we have to fight. Playing North Webster (in the quarterfinals) was probably the toughest playoff game we could have, because there was the familiarity. We had always beat North Webster, until this year. They were really good. My concern was whether or not I could really convince our guys that this was a very formidable foe, and we needed to really be ready to go from the get-go.”
That may have been a valid concern earlier this season, but the Eagles, to a man, have admitted to having grown throughout the course of their 34 games together.
“It was harder earlier in the year, because we are young,” said senior right-hander Scotty Harvill, Evangel’s No. 1 starter. “As the year progressed, we grew as a team. It’s a totally different team than it was earlier in the year. We just grew up. Earlier in the year, we were immature. We knew how to play the game individually but not as a team, and it didn’t turn out very well for us.
“Once district started, we hit our stride, and we haven’t looked back since then.”
It took a little longer than normal for Evangel to find its stride largely in part because of roster turnover.
For the first time in several seasons, there wasn’t a Jennings or a Castellano or a Duron anywhere on the roster. Harvill, shortstop Miller Parker and versatile infielder Spencer Goodwin all had brothers who played key roles on past state championship teams.
Trying to live up to that took its toll on Harvill.
“It bothered me, especially as a younger kid, as a freshman and a little bit as a sophomore,” Harvill said. “When I started throwing sidearm and really finding my own identity, in life and in baseball, the comparisons don’t mean as much either. We talk about it all the time. (Goodwin) and I talk about it all the time. His brother (Caleb) was as good as my brother was in high school.”
One thing that hasn’t been a curse for the Eagles has been the development of their younger players, like sophomore outfielder Ryne Ray, who drew a start in last season’s state semifinals.
Harvill pointed to Ray acting more like a senior than a sophomore, taking heart to the lessons passed down to him by the Class of 2012.
“They let us know how to lead,” Ray said. “They left us knowing how to win, mostly. We came out at the beginning of the season and struggled, but we got it together, and we’re back at it. We come out each season, and we know we have a target on our back. It’s our job to come out and play as hard as we can.”
One thing the Eagles haven’t been able to do is decipher exactly who they are.
Even Hulett, after three months of game action, isn’t quite sure what to make of this team.
“I’ll let you know, if we win the state tournament, what it is,” Hulett said. “I don’t really know. It’s still in progress.”