A year ago, North DeSoto was a surprise entrant in the Class 3A state baseball tournament. At the same time, Calvary and Evangel were expected to reach the 2A state tournament.
Starting today, all three teams will make repeat appearances in the state semifinals, with North DeSoto and Calvary entering their respective class’ final four as defending state champions.
Evangel is making its fourth straight semifinal appearance, while Calvary is in its third consecutive semifinal. All three teams enter their games equipped with perhaps the most important factor for success at the state level — experience.
“The experience makes us comfortable,” Calvary right fielder Ryan Leone said. “We have two big games ahead of us, not looking ahead. This one (against University today at 1 p.m.) is going to be real tough. If we come out with a win, the one on Saturday’s going to be just as tough.”
In successive years, the Cavaliers (28-5) have felt agony and ecstasy in state tournaments, falling to Evangel in the 2011 title game before shutting down Riverside in last year’s championship game.
Riverside eliminated Evangel in last season’s semifinals, something the Eagles (22-12) say left a sour taste in their mouths. Despite a youthful roster, Evangel seems to be peaking, as its 10 a.m. matchup with 15th-seeded Kinder arrives.
“I think our guys are starting to understand,” Eagles coach Tim Hulett said. “We’re constantly talking to them about pregame preparation. Like the night before, what are you thinking about? Instead of being on your phone all night, or playing Nintendo — I guess XBox or whatever they play these days — go over the game. Anticipate what may go on. Play the game in your head.”
Hulett has been at the helm of the Eagles program for the entirety of its current run of semifinal appearances, but the Cavaliers have a first-year coach, Todd Walker.
Walker played in two state tournaments during his high school career at Airline, two College World Series while at LSU and in two Major League Baseball postseasons. Despite that wealth of experience, Walker has found himself in a much different position through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
“It’s a lot different, because we can make things happen with signal-calling, but in terms of being able to hit or field, it’s totally different,” Walker said. “It’s tough, because I feel my emotions getting the best of me through these three playoff games. When I was playing, I was able to keep them more under control.”
The Cavaliers start eight seniors in their everyday lineup, but Evangel, which is on the other side of the bracket, fields a more youthful team.
A season ago, Ryne Ray drew a start in the semifinals as a freshman. Ray and the rest of the Eagles struggled against Riverside’s Tate Scioneaux, but Ray emerged wiser and ready for another shot on the state tournament stage.
“I probably needed to be more prepared, not only for me, but for my team,” Ray said, echoing his coach’s comments. “I think we’ve all done that, come together and be prepared for this game.”
North DeSoto, which faces perennial state power Parkview Baptist at 10 a.m. in Sulphur, falls between Calvary and Evangel on the experience meter.
The Griffins no longer have Jared West and Matt Martin, stars of last season’s title run, but North DeSoto has seen returners like Louis Vig and Austin Pinnick jell with newcomers, like freshman Hunter Speights, to form an outfit that has shown a knack for winning close games.
In each of the last two rounds, the Griffins have advanced via a walk-off error, something they attribute to a simple mantra.
“Teamwork, teamwork, teamwork,” staring third baseman Louis Vig said. “Everybody gets along.”
It has produced a group that has erased a four-run deficit against Eunice, long a state power, and scraped out single runs in the sixth and seventh innings to avoid a second-round upset by Caldwell Parish.
Facing a loaded Parkview Baptist team is just another challenge for the Griffins, who won their first state crown as an 11 seed.
“They’ve got five guys signed to play college baseball,” Griffins coach Bo Odom said. “They’re one of the teams that’s always good. You know you have to go through them to win a state championship in 3A. We’ll be ready to play.”