The Yellow Jackets do not care if they are the lower seed in the match-up. They do not care if they are facing a district champion. They do not care if they face elimination. And they do not care that now they are facing one of the highest ranking teams in the state.
Denison has a reason to be confident, just like they have earned their place alongside some of the best teams in program history and one of 32 left in the state still playing.
“It’s funny how the pieces come together,” Denison head coach Charles Bollinger said. “They just come out and play and our guys truly believe in any inning — it can be the first inning or the last inning — we’ll get the runs to win the game. Our guys are confident but they don’t take anything for granted.”
The Jackets are having their best season in a quarter century, dating back to a state tournament appearance in 1992, and will look to keep adding to it as Denison (21-13) faces Colleyville Heritage (29-6) in a Class 5A Region I quarterfinal series at Prosper. Game 1 is at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Game 2 is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and a third game, if necessary, will be at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
The winner will face either Lubbock Coronado or Amarillo in the region semifinals next week.
Denison has matched 1998 with 21 victories for the most by a squad since the Jackets’ school record of 27 set during that state semifinal appearance in 1992. Along with a third-place finish at the very first state tourney in 1948, there are very few other springs that can surpass what this group of Yellow Jackets has accomplished.
“I don’t know if they grasp what’s going on, the history of it,” Bollinger said. “It’s been a long time. My first years here, the season was over before the end of April.”
For the second straight week the Jackets were pushed to the limit and needed to win a Saturday double-header to advance. In the area round against Fort Worth Arlington Heights, Denison lost the opener, 3-2, after the Jackets tied the game with two runs in the top of the seventh, only for Arlington Heights to earn in the walk-off victory.
But just like in the bi-district round against Azle, when Denison lost Game 1 by the same score, the Jackets rebounded with some strong pitching and timely hitting.
“Those four elimination games, we had a lot of emotion on our backs but the key is not getting down. You have to stay positive,” senior center fielder Carson Auten said. “Every week we’ve been the underdog and it’s going to roll into this week. But we’re on a roll for sure and we have a lot of confidence and I think that keeps us going.”
Christian Ruebeck and Austin Emery did the honors on the mound for the second straight week and Wilson Kirkbride again had the clutch hit in the deciding contest.
“It was deja vu,” Bollinger said. “Our kids weren’t fazed at all. They knew they were going to come out on top. The confidence factor and you have a little luck on your side, a team believes they can win against anyone.”
Ruebeck gave up a run on two hits with seven strikeouts and four walks and Garrett Maxwell earned the save in the 4-1 victory to tie the series. Denison scored all its runs in the bottom of the first with Ruebeck and Auten hitting two-run singles.
“Throwing strikes, that’s all we have to do and the defense has our backs,” Maxwell said. “I don’t think we feel any pressure. We’re just having fun.”
Emery, who won Game 3 against Azle with a shutout 1-0 victory, was just as good against Arlington Heights. He scattered five hits and struck out eight with no walks and the run came in the seventh inning.
In four elimination games so far this postseason, Denison has allowed just three runs in 28 innings, including a streak of 11 straight and one run in 22 innings.
“Our pitchers have done an outstanding job,” Bollinger said. “Our team holds their composure because our pitchers are holding their composure.”
Auten had a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning and Kirkbride followed with a two-out RBI single in the fifth with what turned out to be the deciding run.
“It’s 100 percent our pitching staff,” Auten said. “They get us through those games.”
Colleyville Heritage was in the same position as Denison to get to the third round, winning the final two games to eliminate Aledo. The Panthers dropped the series opener, 3-2, before a 4-1 win over Friday and then a 4-2 victory on Saturday to advance.
Bobby Witt Jr. had a two-run triple and Chandler Freeman and Nick Balsano drove in runs in the deciding contest.
Left-handed pitcher Jakob Berger, a junior, is committed to Dallas Baptist and had a 0.78 ERA in District 8-5A action and classmate Witt Jr., son of the former Texas Ranger, is committed to Oklahoma and slated to join the Sooners in the same class as Ruebeck.
Berger and Witt combined on a two-hitter with 11 strikeouts in the Game 2 victory. Pitching has helped lead the way for their success as Heritage has held opponents to two runs or less in 23 of 35 games.
Heritage opened the playoffs with a 13-0, 19-5 sweep of Fort Worth Southwest.
The Panthers were region finalists last season before losing against district rival Grapevine. It was the best year in school history for the program, which started play in 1996. The only other time Heritage made at least the region semifinals was in 2006 but the Panthers have made the playoffs 15 times since 2001, including every season since 2006 except for 2015.
“We know they’re going to be good,” Bollinger said. “We have to play up to their potential.”