GUNTER — It would have been tough to find a lower point than the one the Tigers found themselves after Game 1 of their area round series against Palmer.
Gunter struggled in all three phases of the game — six errors, five hits and 10 runs allowed all added up to a run-rule loss and on the brink of having its season come to an end.
“We had to really be honest with ourselves. It started a huge fire for us,” senior pitcher Powell Zuniga said. “We were ready for Game 2 and 3. When we get that fire under us, we usually come through.”
The Tigers found a way to overcome that deficit, not only forcing a deciding third game but get in a space mentally to outlast their opponent and advance.
“We played a little scared and we talked about that. I don’t think we’ll do that again,” Gunter head coach Kerry Clement said. “It was a learning experience and we did a lot of learning last week. We’re a lot more confident going into these games than the last ones.”
Whatever challenges Gunter (24-8) faces this week, they will be well-prepared to go up against Grand Saline (23-9) in a Class 3A Region II quarterfinal series at Royse City. 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, would be at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
The winner will face either Big Sandy Harmony or New Diana in the region semifinals next week.
Last year’s area round loss to Sunnyvale saw the program’s six-year streak of making at least the third round snapped. It was only the second time since 2003 the Tigers did not make it that far. Starting a new streak has come despite just two seniors but a large class of 11 juniors.
“We’ve got four or five kids who came into the season not having played at the varsity level,” Clement said. “There’s always expectations here at Gunter but they’ve never been responsible for it before.”
Added senior third baseman Carlos Chavez: “Me and Powell being the only seniors, it puts pressure on us. There’s a lot at stake every week and we need to make sure everybody is ready.”
The Tigers advanced by turning the tables with a 15-4 victory in five innings in Game 3. Bryson Rigsby was 2-for-3 with a pair of triples, four RBI and scored three times, Zuniga was 2-for-3 with two doubles, four RBI and scored twice, Kyle Ball was 2-for-4 and drove in a run and Harrison Fox was 2-for-3, drove in a run and scored.
“That was our best hitting the whole season,” Chavez said. “Small ball has helped us a lot, putting pressure on them.”
Gunter scored eight runs in the top of the first and enacted the run-rule with six runs in the fifth.
“We hit the ball hard. Got them flustered and it steamrolled from there,” Clement said. “Palmer’s a good team. They have a really good tradition.”
It took extra innings in Game 2 for the Tigers to stay alive and they did with a 12-5 win in the eighth. Palmer had tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the seventh before Gunter was able to throw out a runner at the plate for the third out and keep Palmer from the series-winning run.
A seven-run frame in the top of the eighth spurred the comeback. Ethan Watson was 2-for-4 with two RBI and scored, Rigsby was 3-for-4 and scored three times, Teige Harris was 3-for-5 and scored and Fox was 2-for-3, drove in a run and scored.
“It’s like two different worlds, district and playoffs,” Zuniga said. “District we were holding people down two or three runs. We had to pick it up with the bats and we’ve done that, especially the last part of the Palmer series.”
Gunter had opened the playoffs with a sweep of Whitewright but only scored seven runs in doing so. Before facing Palmer, three of the team’s four wins were shutouts.
Grand Saline, the District 12-3A champion, knocked off Gunter’s districtmate, Whitesboro, with a 5-4, 9-3 sweep last week.
“Whitesboro’s as good as anybody in our district and Grand Saline swept them, so that tells you something right there,” Clement said about 9-3A, which still has the third-place Tigers and district champ Pottsboro still alive.
In the opener, the Indians held on for the win after Whitesboro scored twice in the bottom of the seventh and had the tying run at first.
Phillip LaPrade was 3-for-4, drove in a run and scored, Bryce Smith singled and drove in a run, Reed Deatherage drove in a run and scored and Cam Lowe singled and scored.
Grand Saline rallied from a 3-0 deficit going to the bottom of the third in Game 2 to close out the series, scoring at least two runs in each of the third through sixth innings. Deatherage doubled, drove in two runs and scored, Jase Melton was 2-for-5 with a double and scored, Lowe was 2-for-3 and scored and Aubrey Barnes was 2-for-4 and drove in a run.
The Indians opened the playoffs with a 21-0 victory in five innings against Dallas Madison as three pitchers combined on a no-hitter.
Grand Saline enters the match-up on an 11-game winning streak that dates back six weeks to a 5-1 loss against Emory Rains, which was third in the district standings and was swept by Van Alstyne last weekend.
In six of their nine losses, the Indians have been held to two runs or less.