The Evangel baseball team makes a clear point to treat the 2014 as its own entity, not relying on the 2013 championship season or any of the four other championships the Eagles have won.
But with the vast majority of players returning from the 2013 Class 2A title team, senior Chance Defriend said the opportunity to become the first Evangel baseball team to win two straight championships is a motivator.
The Eagles (26-8-1) can take one more step on that journey Friday as No. 2 Evangel takes on No. 6 Brusly in a Class 3A semifinals matchup in Sulphur at the state tournament. The 6 p.m. game at McMurry Park will be on Field #40.
“We talk about it a lot. It is kind of a motivator,” Defriend said about potentially becoming repeat champions. “It means a lot because nobody (from the Evangel baseball program) has done it before.
“It pushes us to try to be the best team so we can win back-to-back (titles).”
Experience also helps, and with Evangel making its sixth state tournament trip in seven seasons, the Eagles aren’t strangers to pressure situations.
A deep Eagles pitching staff has been a key factor this season, but one pitcher who missed most of the regular season with an elbow injury has been a fixture in the postseason.
Senior Austin McWhiney returned late in the regular season, and he’s started two of Evangel’s three playoff wins. He’s thrown three scoreless innings to start a 4-3 win against Livonia in the first round before tossing three more scoreless innings in a 2-0 win against St. Charles Catholic in the quarterfinals.
“With me being out, I feel like nobody knows about me … it’s a good thing in a way,” McWhiney said. “I pitched in one game for three innings before the postseason (since returning from the injury), so it feels great to come back in the postseason at the most important time.
“It wasn’t tough because I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back all season ever since I’ve been out. I wanted to get back in as a senior and play and help the team out.”
Evangel coach Tim Hulett said McWhiney has been a “strike zone machine,” getting a lot of weak ground balls.
“He’s fielded his position extremely well, too,” Hulett said. “He’s a little limited in his conditioning, so we might not be able to go 70 or 80 pitches with him.”
Hulett didn’t announce his semifinal starter, although he said it could resemble Evangel’s second-round game against St. Louis Catholic.
Junior Blake Buckman got that start in the 11-0 five-inning win, but with the Eagles’ quarterfinals game being this past Monday, Hulett virtually has his entire pitching staff available.
“We don’t really have guys that throw on certain days, but one guy has been (closer) Brooks Bryan at the back end,” Hulett said. “Whenever a game needs to be shut down, we go to him.
“We have four or five guys that are interchangeable in relief roles. Shane Miears and Austin Jordan were starters during the early part of the season and have pitched well. Hunter Shaw is a sophomore that hasn’t pitched lately, but he beat John Curtis 6-0 earlier this season. We’re fortunate to have a number of arms right now that can go out and compete at a high level.”
Brusly, one of two District 7-3A state tournament teams with No. 3 University Lab, has battled its way through tough games.
All three of the Panthers wins have been against double-digit seeds, beating No. 11 Erath 4-3 and No. 19 West Feliciana 3-1 in the latest two rounds. Brusly split with University Lab, who plays No. 1 John Curtis at 3 p.m. on Field #40 in the other 3A semifinal, in the two-game regular season series.
Along with previous championship experience, Evangel also has experience on turf fields similar to McMurry Park’s surfaces.
The Eagles played on two turf fields in wins against Dallas teams this season.
“The ball goes a little faster on grounders, but other than that, it’s not really any different from our field,” said Defriend, who is hitting 4-of-9 with two RBIs this postseason. “As far as hitting, I’ve stopped thinking a lot. I was over thinking (earlier), and now I’m just going up there and trying to hit.”
Hulett added that base runners should slide earlier on turf fields, especially in wet conditions.