With nearly every key player returning from the 2013 championship team, Evangel players had visions of a season with less than five losses.
But the Eagles were already over that mark just 14 games in with a 7-6-1 record.
No worries – Evangel won 21 of the next 23 games, including 19 of the last 20, en route to the baseball program’s first back-to-back championships. The Eagles beat John Curtis 6-4 on Saturday to win the Class 3A championship.
First baseman Chance Defriend, one of eight seniors on the team, said this group is the closest team on which he’s ever played.
“We overcame a couple of injuries like one to Austin McWhiney,” Defriend said. “We were over thinking early and trying too hard.
“We had early-season jitters. But the coaches got us focused and dialed in.”
Head coach Tim Hulett, who won his fifth baseball title in the last 10 seasons, paused when asked about the similarities and differences between the 2013 and 2014 championship season.
“There are a lot of similarities,” Hulett said. “Last year we won on some really great pitching.
“This year’s pitching is probably even better throughout the season. As a team, our ERA is below 2.00. Our starting pitching has been great, and we had so many guys that played all kinds of roles.”
The 2013 squad started 12-12 but overcame early-season struggles to win the Class 2A title.
The 2014 championship game featured two old Class 2A members in Evangel and John Curtis, and the Eagles erased an early 4-run deficit for the 6-4 win.
“I told these guys before the game that it would be a dog fight,” said junior catcher Ryne Ray. “It wasn’t going to be a regular game, it was going to be a brawl.
“This year is different because the championship game was tougher than last year. But it’s the same in a lot of ways because this team loves each other like brothers.”
Evangel’s challenging regular season schedule but especially its difficult playoff path prepared the Eagles for a championship brawl.
After a Baton Rouge court put Livonia back into the Class 3A bracket, it was the Eagles who had to face a true No. 11 seed in the first round.
Hulett credited that 4-3 win with setting the tone for the rest of the playoffs, propelling Evangel to an 11-0 five-inning win at No. 18 St. Louis, a 2-0 win against No. 10 St. Charles and a 3-0 win against No. 6 Brusly in the semifinal.
Curtis’ four runs in the first inning of the championship game – three courtesy of a home run by Harry Chairs – was more runs than the Eagles had allowed in the previous five games combined.
But a deep Evangel offensive lineup answered with five third-inning runs and an insurance run in the seventh.
“We needed the offense to come back for us there after we gave up four innings,” Hulett said. “They worked hard all season, and the key was taking team at-bats.”
Evangel closer Brooks Bryan avoided trouble Saturday in 2 1/3 relief innings to earn his eighth save of the season.
He completed a campaign in which he allowed just one earned run in 30 1/3 innings.
“I guess I was just at the right place at the right time,” Bryan said about the feat. “My teammates kept telling me (during the championship game) that they believed in me, and that you’re the guy that’s been doing it all year.
“(Catcher Ryne Ray) is the best behind the plate, and he really helped in this whole process.”
Defriend said during mound visits with Bryan, he usually says things like, “I’ll give you a lollipop if you throw a strike.”
“But tonight (Saturday), it was just that we believe in you.”
Bryan said he’s still looking for college opportunities.
Reliever Shane Miears also played a key role, especially at the state tournament. Miears, who picked up the championship win with four scoreless innings, added 1 2/3 scoreless innings in the semifinals against Brusly.
Cupboard not bare
Eight seniors usually spell a rebuilding year the next season, especially considering the caliber of Evangel players that are graduating.
Shortstop Miller Parker, infielder Chance Defriend, utility Mason Smith and pitchers Austin McWhiney Austin Jordan, Brooks Bryan, Heath Souter and Tyler Richardson depart.
But the Eagles have plenty of talent returning.
Catcher Ryne Ray, the most outstanding player of the championship game, was the team’s leading hitter this season.
Leadoff hitter Blake Buckman combines speed and power as well as a strong arm, winning the Brusly game on the mound.
John Michael Boswell recorded the go-ahead RBI in the championship game and has been a solid bat. Austin Stegall and Patrick Crouch provide power in the middle of the lineup to go with other starters like Collin Beckermeyer and Hunter Shaw.
Miears returns as a valuable and experienced pitcher.
With another season of Hulett family tutelage, the Eagles might find themselves in a familiar position come 2015.