ROUND ROCK — For the sixth straight game the Van Alstyne Panthers had the finish come down to the final inning and each week the stakes have been raised.
The first two were to reach the state quarterfinals and then all three contests to make the state tournament followed suit. Now with a berth in the championship game at state, Van Alstyne found itself in that familiar spot where the seventh inning would play a pivotal role.
Unfortunately it was not the outcome VA had become accustomed to during what turned out to be the second-best year in program history.
“Proud of these guys and the effort they’ve given all year. It’s hard to get to this point,” Van Alstyne head coach Jimmy Haynes said. “You can’t ask for much more than what they’ve given. We played a lot of younger guys and hopefully this experience helps us get back here.”
Justin Wardlow’s sacrifice fly to center gave Blanco was the difference in the walk-off 3-2 victory in a Class 3A state semifinal at Dell Diamond on Friday afternoon.
Blanco (33-5) faced Wall (39-1), a 5-4 winner in nine innings against Kirbyville (33-8), for the state title on Saturday Wall earned the 2-1 victory to win the crown. It was the second final for Blanco, which was also the runner-up in 1988. Wall was the 3A runner-up in 2017.
Tyler Wilson was 3-for-3 with a walk and scored, Zach Smith was 2-for-3 and drove in both runs and Rhett Gallagher and David Terrill each went 2-for-3 for Van Alstyne (29-7), which was trying to get to the championship match-up for the second time, joining the 2016 squad — which won its semifinal game by a single run in eight innings before ending as the runner-up with a school-record 31 wins.
“That was a stinking good ballgame,” Haynes said. “They happened to be the home team so when they scored we couldn’t answer.”
The start of the game was delayed an hour due to the length of the first semifinal but the drama made up for it. Blanco tied the game in the fifth and avoided extra innings thanks to Eddie Calzoncit, who tied the 3A state tournament record with four hits in a game, equaling the feat of West’s Griffin Paxton in 2016, which was also against VA, Weimar’s Jared Barton in 1997 against Gunter and Ore City’s Milton Conwright against Elkhart in 1979.
Calzoncit started the winning rally with a one-out single up the middle and went to second on a balk before Jackson Hunter was hit in a 1-2 count. Samuel Tormos inherited the runners and had to deal with Tyler LaRue, the Rice signee who was drafted in the 38th round by the Washington Nationals earlier in the week. He was intentionally walked after an errant pickoff throw moved the runners up and the margin of error was down to zero.
Wardlow’s flyout to center followed and was deep enough to end the game.
The first chance for Van Alstyne to retake the lead was in the sixth when Terrill singled with two outs and went to second on a wild pitch. A.J. Briscoe, who scattered nine hits and three walks while striking out three, got a strikeout to keep the score level.
In the seventh, Wilson was stranded at second after his one-out walk and two-out steal.
Baylor Smith started the bottom of the sixth with a single to left and was sacrificed to second by Griffin Johnson. But Blanco wasn’t able to take the lead as Chandler David induced a flyout and groundout.
Calzoncit’s triple to open the bottom of the fifth allowed Blanco to tie the game. He didn’t try to score on Hunter’s grounder to short but did on LaRue’s sacrifice fly to right. Conner Loftice had to make a sliding catch so there wasn’t a chance for a play at the plate.
Van Alstyne wasn’t able to pad its 2-0 lead after the third inning. Ethan Litzkow was thrown out trying to steal to end the fourth after being hit by a pitch and in the fifth a double play, VA’s third of the game, wiped out a leadoff single by Wilson. Gallagher walked but Tormos flew out to center to end the inning.
“Those are inning killers,” Haynes said. “We were putting the ball in play; good things can happen but they weren’t in some cases. That’s part of this game some times — start out swinging the sticks real good and then (Briscoe) made some good adjustments.”
It took until the fourth but Blanco finally was able to bring home a leadoff runner, although David was one strike away from another escape. Baylor Smith singled to left, stole second and went to third on a one-out groundout. Austin Van Pelt was down 0-2 before a single to center cut Van Alstyne’s deficit in half at 2-1.
David allowed three runs on eight hits with five strikeouts and two walks.
“CD pitched his heart out,” Haynes said.
Blanco had the leadoff man on for the third time in as many innings with Calzoncit’s infield single to third that Smith saved from being extra bases. A one-out steal put Calzoncit in scoring position and a groundout to short moved him to third. But David got a strikeout to end the threat.
Smith gave Van Alstyne a 2-0 lead in the third with a two-out RBI single to right. Wilson and Gallagher sandwiched singles around a strikeout and the Panthers had runners at the corners after a forceout at second. Smith followed with a hard smash that Calzoncit couldn’t snag at second for the final out of the inning.
David worked out a jam in the second after Johnson led off the frame with a double to left. The senior right-hander then struck out the side to keep Blanco off the board.
Terrill’s leadoff single in the top the second was quickly erased on a double play.
In the bottom of the first, Blanco quickly had runners on base as Calzoncit singled and Hunter walked. David knocked down a comeback by LaRue for the out at first but then walked Justin Wardlow to load the bases.
Baylor Smith then groundout to short and Tormos turned the inning-ending double play to keep VA in front.
Van Alstyne jumped to the lead five batters into the game. Wilson led off the game with a single up the middle before being erased on a 5-4-3 double play. Gallagher singled to left center, courtesy runner Jake Carroll stole second and Tormos worked a walk on a 3-2 pitch.
Zach Smith followed with an RBI single to left and Carroll was able to slide in safely as the throw was up the first-base line just enough to keep Tyler LaRue from making a swipe tag in time.