Gunter faces Atlanta for spot in 3A state tournament
GUNTER — The tradition the Tigers are aiming to live up to literally hung over them, each year of success on the outfield wall in full view as they stepped to the plate.
It was a decade of dominance by Gunter, a stretch from 1991-2001 where the program won titles in 1994 and 1998, was the runner-up in 1991 and made it to the state tournament in 1997, 2000 and 2001 for six trips in 11 seasons.
But in the ensuing 20 years, this will be just the second time the Tigers are even playing for a spot at state.
This group joins the 2004 squad, which went 31-4 and lost, 2-0, in a one-game match-up against Ponder, as the only ones to get to this point since and have a chance to leave that type of legacy as Gunter (34-8) faces Atlanta (24-11) in the Class 3A Region II final. Game 1 is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday at Mike Carter Field in Tyler.
“I know it motivates me to be the best I can to be up there with the Gunter greats,” senior outfielder and three-year starter Garrett Vogel said. “And I know it motivates these other guys. We have to give 110 percent every time out there. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we can still do.”
The winner advances to the state tournament and plays in a semifinal next Friday at either 9 a.m. or noon at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. It is going to end a drought for either program — the first for Gunter since 2001 or the first by Atlanta since 1998.
“You’ve got to win the one in front of you,” Tigers head coach Daryl Hellman said. “The way the kids are talking, they know what’s out in front of us and what it means but they know Atlanta’s going to be very good and tough to beat.”
Dating back to 1985, the program has missed the playoffs just once and there have been many deep playoff runs. This season was the sixth time since 2012 the Tigers had reached the region semifinals.
But they couldn't break through that fourth-round roadblock until now. Thanks to a nearly untouchable ace backed by a deep pitching staff — five different Tigers have playoff victories — and a mix of veteran starters, precocious freshmen and a little bit in between in the lineup, Gunter is getting the chance it has wanted for a very long time.
“We’ve got a really good feel how we work together as a team,” senior designated hitter/third baseman/reliever Nash Daniel said. “We had to push through that Round Four playoff barrier. It’s not just a dream we’re talking about in the clubhouse; it could be a reality.”
Gunter stayed alive by winning the final two contests of its region semi series against Elysian Fields. It lost the opener, 6-1, in nine innings before tying the series with a 7-3 win.
The Tigers advanced with a 9-3 victory as Vogel was 3-for-5 with a double, two RBI and scored twice, Trey Oblas singled, walked twice, drove in a pair and scored, Colton Jolly was 2-for-4, drove in a run and scored and Cade Dodson had a second straight stellar relief effort, earning the save after he picked up the win in Game 2.
“We were playing life and death in that second game and the kids were really focused,” Hellman said. “Our team is a young team. Only two guys were really varsity starters last year. Without seasoned players, you want them to believe they can do this. And they keep showing it every week.”
Atlanta, the District 14-3A champions, also advanced to the region final with a Game 3 victory. The Rabbits came away with a blowout win against Grandview, 10-0, in six innings to clinch the series.
Jackson Warren allowed just two hits with four strikeouts and no walks, Ty Graf was 3-for-4 with a double and three RBI, Nick Burden was 2-for-2 with a double, walked and scored twice and Dex Ebard drove in a pair of runs.
It was a 3-0 scored going into the fifth inning before the Rabbits broke it open.
Grandview had forced a deciding game with an 8-1 victory after Atlanta started the series with a 4-2 win.
In fact, the Rabbits’ last two series have gone the distance as they needed to win the final two games of their region quarterfinal match-up with Big Sandy Harmony to keep advancing in the bracket.
“They’re going to be the fastest nine guys, 11 with their courtesy runners, we’ve played,” Hellman said. “They like to bunt, they like to slash bunt, get the corners charging down the line and try to hit it over them.”