Evangel catcher Ryne Ray says he isn’t fazed that the Eagles start their Class 3A baseball title defense with a first-round matchup against Livonia today at 4 p.m.
Livonia finished the season 22-5 and ranked in or near the top 10 in several power ratings before the Louisiana High School Athletics Association made the Wildcats forfeit 18 games because of an ineligible freshman player.
But a legal battle ensued in which a Baton Rouge court eventually ruled Thursday afternoon that the Wildcats had to be placed in the playoffs, whose first games had already started.
So the Wildcats traveled Saturday to No. 31 seed Kaplan, Evangel’s original opponent, and won 7-2 to set up what looks more like a quarterfinals matchup than one in the first round.
Still, Ray says his Eagles just have to play.
“Nothing really,” Ray responded when asked his opinion of the situation. “We just have to show up.
“We’d probably have to play them toward the end of the playoffs anyway. We might as well go ahead and get ’em out of the way. We’ve only got one goal.”
That goal is a second consecutive state championship, and Ray said the Eagles have relied on that experience already this season, like an unexpected 7-6-1 start.
“Our team has really bonded about halfway through the season,” Ray said. “Our guys started playing more for the team, executing the small things and doing what needed to be done instead of doing what they wanted to do.
“We’ve all just gotten better as the season has gone on. We’ve got one of the toughest lineups one through nine that’s out there right now.”
The Eagles have won 14 of their last 15 games, which includes a District 1-3A title.
Evangel coach Tim Hulett said one big difference in facing Livonia compared to a normal No. 31 seed is a stud pitcher.
“I do know they have one guy who is pretty good, and you usually don’t face a guy like him in the first round,” said Hulett, who added that he and his coaches weren’t going down to watch the Livonia-Kaplan game. “We’ll have to adjust our pitching, too, and we may choose to use some different guys than we normally would have.
“You do have to beat good teams in the playoffs, and we have to play who we have to play … but Livonia will be a different type of game. Sometimes against a No. 31 seed. guys think they just have to show up and may not be mentally as ready. But we’ll have a conversation to make sure we’re focused from the beginning.”
The Eagles have a deep pitching staff led by starters Shane Miers (4-2, 2.17 ERA), Buckman (5-1, 2.74 ERA) and Austin Jordan (3-1, 2.65 ERA) with closer Brooks Bryan (one earned run in 23 innings) waiting in the wings.
Ray, with his 21 RBIs, .326 batting average and team-high five home runs has been part of Evangel’s foundation with guys like Blake Buckman (.356, 28 runs scored) and Patrick Crouch (.370) among others.
Livonia had won 19 of its last 21 games on the field, but one can expect a fired up bunch of Wildcats that are happy to be in the playoffs but feel they shouldn’t be facing the defending state champion in their second road game since Saturday.
But to Ray, the Eagles have to stick to their own routine and not worry about who their opponent is.
“If you prepare differently for any game, then it’s lost,” Ray said when asked how the Eagles would handle the expected adrenaline from their visitors. “We’ll prepare the same way.”