There were three chances for Denison to clinch a playoff berth last week and waited until there was no margin for error. Perhaps that bodes well for what’s in store for the Yellow Jackets.
Ending a five-year playoff drought is one thing. Doing it in dramatic fashion is another. But it wasn’t expected to be easy for Denison to go from a tie for sixth place, albeit six games off the postseason pace, and immediately into the playoff chase.
There has been an influx of young talent getting a taste of varsity experience for the first time. One of the top players in the country and a pitcher capable of headlining the staff transferred.
There were too many one- and two-run losses combined with several injuries on the mound during non-district play (Denison started the year 1-10) to build any momentum. But the Jackets figured things out in time to hang around third place throughout 5-5A action and then won a play-in game — in the bottom of the seventh inning — to advance to the postseason.
“We had to overcome a lot at the beginning of the year,” said Zach Sanders, who joins the only other seniors in Tre’ Lyday and Nick Sparks in the starting outfield. “We knew this was a new district and that we could have a chance.”
If anything, Denison (10-20) is battle-tested and has its top pitcher rested when it faces Justin Northwest (23-9) in Class 5A Region I bi-district match-up at Northwest at 7 p.m. on Friday.
“I’ve never used any excuses for a younger kid. The expectation is high,” Denison head coach Charles Bollinger said. “They don’t want to let their teammates down, let their coaches down.”
The victor of the winner-take-all contest will face either Birdville or Fort Worth Western Hills in the area round.
It would be the second straight such game for Denison, which beat Denton Braswell, 7-6, after the teams tied for fourth place. The Jackets led 6-2 going to the top of the sixth before Braswell tied the game.
Then Denison loaded the bases in the bottom inning but couldn’t score. Then Braswell loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the seventh and somehow came up empty.
“We had a big momentum swing Saturday when they had bases loaded and didn’t score,” Bollinger said. “If they just get one run, I think it goes the opposite way. Something good happens for us and these kids feed off it.”
Freshman Luke Kirkbride came up with the biggest hit of his young career with a one-out, walk-off double to send the Jackets to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
“These guys can understand what it’s like,” Bollinger said. “You get the confidence that comes when you know you’re supposed to beat people instead of feeling people should be beating us. We’re not just happy to be in the playoffs.”
Kirkbride was 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles, drove in the deciding run and scored, Dalton Souther was 2-for-3 with a triple, two RBI and two runs, Wilson Kirkbride scored twice and Nate Maulsby tripled and drove in two runs.
“Saturday was a playoff game like Friday’s going to be,” Sanders said. “We all know what’s at stake.”
The victory came barely 16 hours after Denison could have clinched a playoff spot and tied for third place but lost the season finale, 12-2 in six innings, against second-place Sherman. Three days before that, the Jackets could have clinched with a win against Denton Ryan but the Raiders scored twice in the sixth to pull out a 4-3 win.
“You can’t look back. You can’t look at what happened against Sherman and Ryan,” Bollinger said. “You can only focus on your next at-bat, your next game.”
That four-day span led to the nail-biting finish and the youngsters came through.
“There are times they’re going to get frustrated but us seniors try to keep things positive,” Sanders said. “Without them there’s not an us still playing either.”
Denison will turn to its top starter, Christian Ruebeck, against Justin Northwest. One of six sophomores on the roster, Ruebeck was unavailable to start the play-in game because of his pitch count against Ryan. He will have been waiting nine days for the seven innings that could send Denison to the second round for the first time since 2000.
“We’ve got our No. 1 going,” Bollinger said. “I think we can beat anybody with our Number 1 — if we score some runs.”
Justin Northwest took advantage of realignment as it dropped down from Class 6A, where it had an overall winning record but then struggled in district play and was near the bottom of the standings.
This year the Texans went all the way to the top of 6-5A, claiming the district title by three games.
The team is led by four signees — Austin Whitelock (NCTC), Tanner Tredaway (Seminole State), Jarod Riggio (Northern Oklahoma) and Hunter Brill (Dawson Community College).
Tredaway leads the team with a .457 average while Riggio is at .410.
In the one-game scenario, Justin Northwest will most likely turn to either Dodger Gilliland or the left-handed Brill.
“If you’re going to do well in the playoffs, you’re going to have some luck on your side, the ball bounce your way,” Bollinger said. “Take advantage of opportunities when they come your way.”