VAN ALSTYNE — For the first time all postseason, the Panthers were not just being tested, they were on the brink of elimination.
Three rounds had ended with sweeps and Van Alstyne was halfway to another, this time against Atlanta, before the Panthers dropped Game 2. Then they were six outs away from their season being over.
“I told them during Game 3, ‘you’ve played close games all year. You know what it takes to get the job done,’” Van Alstyne head coach Jimmy Haynes said. “They took the challenge. I felt confident if we could get people on we could move them around.”
The Panthers rose to what has been a rare occasion for them in these playoffs and scored twice in the bottom of the sixth. A pinch-hitting walk by Alex Rivera got it started. A bases-loaded walk by Zach Smith tied it. A sacrifice bunt by David Terrill with the bases loaded brought home the deciding run.
“They called the squeeze and I had a job to do. You have to get it down,” he said. “We’ve practiced that all through the year so I was pretty confident. I was prepared.”
It was another instance of some unsung heroes coming through and it helped Van Alstyne (27-5) move two wins from the state tournament.
Standing in the way is Big Sandy Harmony (29-7) in the Class 3A Region II final series. Game 1 is at Tyler Junior College on Thursday; Game 2 is at Prosper on Friday and Game 3, if necessary, is at Royse City on Saturday. All start times are 7 p.m.
The winner advances to the state tournament and will play in a semifinal at either 9 a.m. or noon next Friday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. Van Alstyne is trying to get back there for the second time and first since finishing as the runner-up in 2016 while Harmony is looking to make it for the first time since it was a semifinalist in 2003.
When VA went to state it beat Harmony in the bi-district round, bookending 7-2 wins around a 3-0 loss.
“It’s kind of been our expectation from the beginning,” senior pitcher Chandler David said. “Our motto is ‘do what you do.’ Don’t change your approach because of who you are playing. I think our pitching staff’s pretty confident. Our whole lineup’s contributing. In the playoffs, everybody’s done their job.”
Added Haynes: “We’ve talked about it as it’s gotten closer. After we went undefeated in district, I told them Round Rock was a real possibility. Now we’re one series away from getting to state again.”
Terrill, a junior who transferred from Melissa, had just completed catching the 13th of his 14 innings of the double-header when he stepped to the plate. He had already driven in a run but Atlanta led 3-2 when Van Alstyne’s turn at bat in the sixth arrived.
By the time it was Terrill’s turn in the box, Rivera had opened the inning with his walk.
“Him getting that leadoff walk was huuuuge,” Haynes said.
Rhett Gallagher singled and Samuel Tormos walked to load the bases. Smith tied the game with his walk. With one out, all Terrill had to do was stay out of the double play or hit it deep enough to bring in the go-ahead run. On a 1-0 pitch the sign came to lay one down.
“David had been swinging the bat well. We let him swing away the first pitch. We knew we had to put the ball in play, Haynes said. “We were playing for the tie. As it developed, we saw we’ve got a chance to win. The way the inning went allowed us to capitalize.”
The ball went between the mound and first base and the only play was on Terrill. Van Alstyne had the lead and three outs later advanced.
“I think we’ve handled pressure well,” Terrill said. “We have to help our pitchers and having options all through the lineup helps.”
The lone blemish on the Panthers this postseason was the 2-1 loss in Game 2. Tormos allowed the runs in the fourth inning, after VA went up in the third, on three hits with three strikeouts and three walks in six innings but the Panthers could only muster five hits, scoring after Tyler Wilson doubled and came around on Gallagher’s one-out single.
Terrill had a one-out single in the seventh but Van Alstyne couldn’t push across the tying run.
In the opener, David allowed a pair of runs on five hits with five strikeouts and three walks in a 5-2 win. Terrill was 2-for-3 with a triple and scored twice, Smith was 2-for-4, drove in a run and scored, Collin Reynolds singled, walked twice and drove in a run and Conner Loftice and Cade Morgan each singled and drove in runs.
Harmony, which has won 15 of its last 16 games, advanced to the fifth round with a sweep of Gunter, 1-0 in eight innings and 13-1 in five innings, last week. It is the Eagles’ first trip to the region final since 2003 — they lost in the region quarterfinals against eventual state champion Beckville last spring.
In the clincher, Easton Blackstone limited Gunter to four hits, a walk and hit a pair and was also 4-for-4 with two doubles, five RBI and scored twice as Harmony pulled away after taking a 6-1 lead into the fifth by scoring seven runs that frame to enact the run-rule.
Gage Goddard was 2-for-3, drove in a pair and scored twice and Drew McNeel was 2-for-4, drove in a run and scored twice for the Eagles.
Pitching carried Harmony in Game 1 as Goddard threw a three-hit shutout with nine strikeouts and a walk. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the eighth when singles by McNeel and Blackstone got the inning started and with one out, Trent Hart singled to left to win the game.
The Eagles opened the playoffs with a sweep of Dallas Jefferson and then won a Game 3 against Winnsboro, 14-2, in five innings after losing the middle game, 8-7. Harmony won the opener, 22-1, in five innings. They eliminated New Diana with a 9-2, 3-1 sweep in the region quarterfinals to make sure this would be their best season since making it to state in ‘03.
Harmony, which was the District 16-3A champion, split their first six games of the season before getting on a roll.
In their eight playoff victories, the Eagles have allowed a total of nine runs and no more than two in any of those contests.
“I think they’re a lot like us. We’re in the same boat,” Haynes said. “Good pitching does that. We’ve done the same with CD and Rhett and Sam. That’s typical of teams playing this time of year.”