The pressure was on the Yellow Jackets once they found a way to get into the playoffs last spring. With a large core returning for this season, Denison was expecting not only to make the postseason but to then do something once there.
The first step in that direction was taken by clinching the third seed last week in what has been the best season in more than a decade. Now the Jackets will look to keep the success going as Denison (17-11) faces Azle in a Class 5A Region I bi-district series. Game 1 is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Prosper and Games 2 and 3 will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Southlake Carroll.
“We want to keep it going,” senior first baseman Dalton Souther said. “We made it once and we're trying to make this time even better.”
The winner will face either Birdville or Fort Worth Arlington Heights in the area round next week.
“We're good enough to play with anybody and good enough to beat anybody,” Denison head coach Charles Bollinger said.
A year ago the Jackets had to win a play-in game against Denton Braswell to earn the final 5-5A playoff spot before losing to 6-5A champ Justin Northwest in a winner-take-all bi-district match-up. This time around Denison got off to a strong district start and always had a hold on one of the top four spots in the standings until officially making consecutive postseason trips for the first time since 2000-01. That appearance in 2000 was the last time the Jackets advanced past the first round.
“I think our district, a tough little district that will benefit us,” Bollinger said. “So many tight games I think that will benefit all of us.”
The 17 victories are six more than last season and the most by the program since Denison won 19 games in 2007 — but that was a year it did not make the playoffs.
“Definitely think we're going in the right direction,” Bollinger said. “You want to make winning a habit.”
The holdovers in the lineup contributed like expected — the top of the order includes seniors Seth Thomas and Wilson Kirkbride and junior Christian Ruebeck — and other spots saw returning starters as well, including seniors Austin Emery and Souther and sophomore Cayden Earnhart.
“We knew going into district we were a top tier team,” Souther said. “Last year it surprised us. This year we knew it. We were trying to hit our peak for the playoffs.”
But a couple of newcomers have also helped Denison improve after jumping to the varsity early on. Sophomore Zander Ramey made the most of his audition on the mound and because the Jackets' Tuesday night starter in district play and freshman Cam Wheeler made the most of his at-bats to slide into fifth in the batting order with a starting spot in right field.
Ramey is expected to get the Game 1 start and the Jackets have options for either one or two games on Saturday, including Ruebeck, who pitched well in relief in the season-ending loss against Sherman, as well as Kaleb McAlester, Garrett Maxwell and Jacob Monroe.
“I think our pitching and defense has gotten a lot better,” said Thomas, the starting third baseman. “We've gotten smarter playing the game.”
Azle was the runner-up in District 6-5A behind champion V.R. Eaton, holding off Aledo for the second seed, and is in the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
The program hasn't been to the second round since 2006, which was also one of three times in the past 20 years the Hornets reached the region quarterfinals.
“I'm sure they're very confident. I'm sure they'll be feeling pretty good,” Bollinger said. “As long as we come out swinging the bats, throw strikes and play defense, we have a chance against anyone we play.”