Gunter's quest for a state title hits home stretch

Jason Della Rosa
Herald Democrat
Gunter's Kaden Rigsby, left, and Trey Oblas celebrate after a run during the Tigers' victory over Atlanta to advance to the Class 3A state tournament for the first time since 2001.

GUNTER — After coming off a region semifinal appearance and bringing back seven starters as part of a lineup almost entirely of seniors, Gunter had its sights set on the state tournament.

The 2020 version.

But just as district play was about to get started, the coronavirus pandemic shut down all spring sports. Eventually the rest of everyone’s season was cancelled. This wasn’t supposed to be the year for the Tigers. Last year was.

“It really cheated the seniors last year. Everybody got cheated,” Gunter head coach Daryl Hellman said.

The next group of upperclassmen wasn’t as big — there’s only three seniors. But they were just as worried their final year might end in a similar fashion.

“The beginning of the school year, I thought it could happen again,” right fielder Colton Jolly said. “What if they cancel school and baseball?”

A little more than a year later, maybe it turned out the Tigers’ success ended right on schedule.

With contributions up and down the roster and across all four classes in key moments, Gunter (36-8) made it all the way to the final weekend and faces Malakoff (36-7) in a Class 3A state semifinal at noon on Friday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock.

“Just going out and playing how we’re playing baseball,” Jolly said. “We’re there so why not win the whole thing? I’m ready for it.”

London (32-5) will face Brock (31-10) in the other semifinal at 9 a.m. and the winners will play for the championship at 9 a.m. on Saturday at Dell Diamond.

“I’m not worried about the size of the game, the magnitude of it, to overwhelm these kids,” Hellman said. “The pressure is no different that anything they’ve done already.

“I feel like everything is set up to go play our best and I hope we do.”

Gunter has played series all the way through the postseason and while they have faced elimination, they always started with a Game 1 cushion — not beginning with a winner-take-all scenario.

“It’s definitely a different mindset. All your eggs are in one basket,” designated hitter and pitcher Nash Daniel said. “We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game. Losing isn’t an option.”

Gunter is at state for the eighth time — and seeking a third title to go with ones from 1994 and 1998 — but the first since 2001 after it captured the Region II crown by sweeping Atlanta.

“It’s always in the back of your mind; this is the year we can go,” Daniel said. “With it being my senior year, I’m glad we’re making the most of it.”

The Tigers clinched with a 6-0 victory in Game 2. Riekkhen Bostick scattered seven hits and two walks with a pair of strikeouts, Garrett Vogel went 3-for-3 and drove in a run, Cade Dodson was 3-for-4 with a double and three RBI, Daniel was 2-for-3 and scored twice and Trey Oblas drove in a pair.

Gunter opened the series with an 11-1 victory. Vogel went 3-for-4 with a double, walked, drove in two and scored twice, Oblas was 2-for-3 with his triple, three RBI and scored, Landon Pelfrey was 2-for-4 with a double and scored twice and Jolly scored three times.

The Rabbits struggled to contain the top four spots — Vogel, Kaden Rigsby, Dodson and Oblas — in the order. The quartet combined to go 15-for-30 with four doubles, a triple, 11 RBI, eight runs and three walks in the two games.

“We’ve been really focused in practice and the batting cages to make sure our tools are as sharp as possible,” said Vogel, the other senior and a three-year starter in the outfield.

Daniel, Dodson and Pelfrey combined for five shutout innings and finished off a three-hitter after Isaac Villanueva left the start following two-plus innings. The sophomore lefty is expected to be available, as are all Tigers hurlers.

“You go to the state tournament, every pitcher has 110 pitches,” Hellman said. “You can’t worry about the second game until you get past the first.”

It was a mantra the Tigers followed all year. They had to win a pair — both by a single run over Bells and Pottsboro — as part of a three-way tiebreaker atop District 11-3A in order to get the best seed in the bracket.

“After district, it was like let’s just go,” Jolly said. “Let’s just keep going and that’s what we’ve done.”

They had to win three elimination games, including the last two contests of their region semifinals series with Elysian Fields.

“I got emotional after we beat Atlanta because of the kids,” Hellman said. “I had a brief moment of pride but then it turns to, who are we going to play? I’ll do everything I can for the kids to be successful. I’ll sleep and I’ll eat after this weekend.”

Malakoff won Region III with a sweep of Cameron Yoe. to advance to state for the first time in program history.

Alan Benhardt opened the series with a two-hitter, striking out nine and walking three in a 7-0 victory. Cole Gaddis, Brandon Nations and Erik Waldo all homered as Malakoff pulled away after holding a 1-0 lead going to the fifth inning.

Malakoff avoided a deciding Game 3 with four runs in the bottom of the fifth inning to earn the sweep with a 6-4 win. Nations went 2-for-2 with a homer, drove in four and walked twice, Benhardt was 2-for-4 with a double and scored and Gaddis singled, walked twice and scored twice.

The lineup is completely made up of seniors and there are 12 of them on the roster.

Malakoff shared the District 18-3A title with Blooming Grove but then won the tie-breaker contest to get the top seed. There was only one loss on the road to state — Woodville won Game 2 of the region semifinals, 2-1, around 4-0 and 6-5 wins by Malakoff.

“Malakoff’s a team we’re going to have to play our best baseball of the year to beat,” Hellman said.