SOUTHLAKE — It was the feeling Austin Emery had been waiting for in his high school career. Twice in football and last spring in baseball, he had helped the Yellow Jackets to the playoffs but been eliminated immediately.
Denison’s fate this year rested on Emery’s right arm as he took the mound for the deciding game and he delivered with no margin for error after the Jackets pulled even in the series with a standout pitching performance by Christian Ruebeck.
Emery scattered five hits and struck out six and Wilson Kirkbride’s RBI single in the third inning was enough as the Jackets defeated Azle, 1-0, to win a Class 5A Region I bi-district series on Saturday.
“We had that momentum going to the third game and I carried that momentum with me,” Emery said. “It’s my last sport in my last year. I can’t wait to get that gold glove and ready to go get another one.”
Denison (19-12) will face Arlington Heights, which swept Birdville, in the area round this week. It is the first time Denison has advanced past the first round since 2000 and the 19 victories ties 2007 for the most in a season since 21 back in 1998.
“Play well and you can keep going week to week,” Denison head coach Charles Bollinger said. “Who knows how far we can go? Austin pitched his tail off. Our pitching was stout in all three games.”
The Jackets scored the only run when Seth Thomas hit a one-out double down the third-base line and Wilson Kirkbride followed with flare into center field. Thomas was on the move and would have been doubled off but Kirkbride got enough of it to get it over the shortstop and put Denison in front.
Ruebeck followed with a single but the chance at a bigger inning ended when Emery bounced into a double play.
Azle had runners on in every inning except the seventh but Emery bore down each time.
“They had to be the one scoring the run, not us giving it up to them,” he said. “Pitching ahead in the count, that defense behind me and we were able to get it done.”
Ryan Lehr singled with one out in the first but was stranded at second and Michael Rodriguez had a one-out hit in the second.
The Jackets ended the third with a nifty double play after Cody Akers doubled to left-center with one out and Lehr bunted for a hit to put runners at the corners. Sam Collins rapped into the 4-6-3 double play with a nice turn and a great scoop at first by Dalton Souther kept Denison ahead.
“I didn’t think we had any chance at that double play. An all-around team effort in this one,” Bollinger said. “You could tell how confident we were in our defense.”
In the fourth, Emery worked around a two-out error and in the fifth Garrett Connell led off with a single and the Hornets got a runner to second before the inning was over.
Cameron Baker worked a one-out walk in the sixth and the Jackets missed a chance to turn a double play and end the inning but it wasn’t costly as Cam Wheeler made a diving catch coming in for the third out in right field.
Denison forced the deciding game with a 9-1 victory — the program’s first playoff win since 2000 — to start the day. Ruebeck threw a one-hitter and drove in three runs, Emery was 3-for-4 with four RBI and Thomas singled twice and scored three times.
The Jackets gave themselves a big cushion with three runs in the fifth and sixth innings.
Denison touched up a pair of relievers in the sixth. Nick Moreno walked, Wheeler was hit by a pitch and Thomas beat up a bunt to load the bases. Kirkbride walked to force in a run and Emery had a two-run single to left with one out.
In the fifth, Thomas had an infield hit to third, Kirkbride bunted and beat the throw from third and Ruebeck smashed a two-run triple to left-center for a 5-1 lead. Emery then singled to right to bring Ruebeck home.
Ruebeck retired the first nine Hornets he faced — four on strikeouts, four on groundouts — before Akers led off the fourth with an infield single in the hole at shortstop. With two outs Collins took second on a wild pitch and things unraveled a bit. Baker and Dylan Flynn walked to load the bases and Ruebeck hit Rodriguez on a 3-2 pitch to force in a run.
He recovered to strike out Easton Elrod to end the rally at the lone run.
Denison went up 3-0 in the fourth when Luke Kirkbride walked with one out, stole second, went to third on a groundout and scored on Wheeler’s single up the middle.
After the Jackets put a runner on in each of the first two innings, they broke through in the third. Wheeler, hitting in the No. 9 spot, singled up the middle. He was forced at second on a groundout by Thomas, who quickly stole second.
Wilson Kirkbride hit a cue shot over Baker’s head and beat the throw to first by the second baseman Lehr and Denison had runners at the corners. Even with the infield in, Ruebeck plated a run on a groundout to second. Kirkbride, who was at second after a wild pitch, moved to third and scored when Emery dunked an RBI single into right center for a 2-0 advantage.
In Game 1 on Friday night at Prosper, Azle earned a 3-2 victory with a pair of early runs and scored again in the seventh with much proved to be the deciding run.
Ruebeck was 2-for-2 with a home run, Carson Auten added a solo homer and Thomas, Cayden Earnhart and Emery singled for the Jackets.
Zander Ramey allowed three runs, two earned, on six hits with nine strikeouts and three walks.
Azle led 2-0 after three innings before Ruebeck’s homer to left with one out in the fourth.
Denison had a chance to tie the game in the sixth when Thomas led off with a single, was sacrificed to second and Ruebeck was hit by a pitch. Emery grounded out to put runners at the corners before Souther struck out to end the threat.
Azle scored in the seventh via a leadoff walk, sac bunt and a double but Garrett Maxwell kept the damage there by getting the final two outs, the last with a runner at third.
Auten led off the bottom of the seventh with a homer to left but the Jackets went in order to end the game.