If it had been last year, the Yellow Jackets would have gone home, because there was no margin for error.
Denison’s playoff appearance in 2017 gave them seven innings to advance, and it ended at that point.
This time around there was a mulligan available. And Denison made the most of that second chance and made a little bit of history along the way.
“I think we’ve got a strong senior core that’s good with that — more experienced and level-headed,” Yellow Jackets head coach Charles Bollinger said. “Pressure doesn’t seem to bother us one bit. I think they will keep getting better and better.”
Sweeping a Saturday double-header to avoid elimination, including a 1-0 victory in Game 3, Denison (19-12) faces Arlington Heights (23-7) in a Class 5A Region I area round series at Plano John Paul II. Game 1 is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday with Games 2 and 3 at 2 a.m. on Saturday.
The winner will face either Aledo or Colleyville Heritage in the region quarterfinals next week.
It is the first time since 2000 Denison won in the playoffs and advanced to the second round. The program is trying to reach the third round for the first time since making the Class 4A state tournament in 1992, which would be classified as the region semifinals now.
“We’re treating it the same, working on things situation-wise that came up in the last series we feel we should be better at,” Bollinger said. “The kids are all upbeat and confident. It’s going to come down to the little things, like it did with Azle.”
The 19 victories this season are the most since Denison won the same total in 2007 (a year that didn’t include a playoff trip) and the most since 21 wins in 1998.
Pitching is what got Denison to this point. Azle scored a total of four runs in the three games and the Hornets managed just one run in the final 14 innings — two in the final 18 — of the series.
“Any level, pitching and defense normally wins the championships. You’re always going to have a chance,” Bollinger said. “Going into the playoffs last year with the injuries we had, we maybe had only one pitcher to rely on. We’ve got several now that we can throw out there and feel good about.”
Azle won the opener, 3-2, before Denison stayed alive with a 9-1 win and then moved on with the 1-0 nailbiter.
Austin Emery scattered five hits and struck out six and Wilson Kirkbride’s RBI single in the third inning was the difference in ending the program’s drought dating back to before almost the entire team was born.
Christian Ruebeck threw a one-hitter in Game 2 and drove in three runs, Emery was 3-for-4 with four RBI and Seth Thomas singled twice and scored three times.
After a 12-0 run in District 7-5A, Arlington Heights opened the playoffs with a bi-district sweep against Birdville, 6-2 in the opener before an 11-2 victory, to advance.
In the clincher, Marco Facundo was 4-for-4 with a double, drove in a run and scored, Wylan Kolts was 2-for-4 with two RBI and scored, Izzy Lopez was 2-for-4 and scored three times and Andres Rios drove in three runs as Arlington Heights broke the game open with a 10-run fourth inning.
Julian Martinez got the start and allowed a run on three hits with four strikeouts and four walks in four innings.
The opener saw Birdville down just 3-2 after six innings before Arlington Heights scored three times in the seventh. Kolts was 2-for-4, drove in a run and scored twice, Lopez was 2-for-3 and scored three times and Marshall Rose drove in three runs. Jonathon Castillo allowed two runs, one earned, on three hits with three strikeouts and two walks in 5.2 innings.
The common theme in beating Arlington Heights is to quiet the bats — the offense did not score more than three runs in any of the team’s losses.
Arlington Heights has made the playoffs every year since 2000 and last season lost to Richland in the first round to end a three-year streak of area round appearances.
The program is trying to reach the region quarterfinals for the third time in four years.
“They’ve definitely got a baseball tradition,” Bollinger said. “You’ve got to be playing your best ball to give yourself a chance against a program like that. It starts all over week by week. It doesn’t matter last week or what you did in district. It matters what you do in these games now.”