By Jason Della Rosa Herald Democrat

GUNTER — The Tigers knew they were good last season, and they proved it by getting to the state tournament for the first time in 20 years before suffering a one-run loss in the semifinals to the eventual state champion.

And from the moment the ball went back through in the middle to eliminate Gunter, the year-long journey to return to the final four began as the underclassmen were walking off the field.

The Tigers weren’t going to take for granted they had seven starters returning and reinforcements ready to step right into the lineup for the departing seniors, that they could just waltz right back to this point despite the target on their backs.

“You’ve got to stay locked in,” GHS head coach Daryl Hellman said. “A good team, coaching staff puts pressure on themselves. The expectations are there.”

Early injuries had to be overcome. The pressure of a season where they have been almost perfect. Gunter has put in the work for the past 364 days to make it look easy, but more importantly to get another crack at a state championship.

“Last year we were excited to be here. Getting there was such a big deal,” senior left fielder Kaden Rigsby said. “We knew if we played our game we’d have a shot to be back. Winning this is something we would talk about the rest of our lives.”

The same exact thing could be said for the Tigers’ opponent as Gunter (36-1) faces Corpus Christi London (25- 13) in a Class 3A state semifinal at Dell Diamond in Round Rock at 9 a.m. on Friday.

“Our seniors want this,” Hellman said. “The conversations, the approach hasn’t changed. It’s about staying true to the game. We’ve got two more games left if we’re lucky.”

Brock (35-3) and Diboll (38-4) square off in the other semifinal and the winners advance to the state championship game at 9 a.m. on Saturday.

“I felt like Brock was the top team in Region I and we were in the conversation as the top team in Region II,” Hellman said. “Down in Region IV, London had another good year but they were in a district with Bishop like Pottsboro was in with us.”

London suffered an even more heartbreaking loss to eventual champ Malakoff than Gunter’s walk-off 4-3 defeat in the semifinals. The Pirates had a 7-4 lead going to the bottom of the seventh and were up by that margin with two outs to a title but couldn’t close the deal.

Malakoff had loaded the bases before the second out and then scored four times, using only one hit, for an 8-7 victory.

“We were capable of winning the whole thing,” Hellman said. “They’re going to have a chip on their shoulder with how things went.”

While the Tigers bring back nearly the entire lineup, the Pirates can do one better as London has eight starts returning from their runner-up squad. That includes senior pitcher Kade Budd, who beat Brock in the semifinals to get London to the title game, is 9-2 this spring and the likely candidate to face the Tigers.

Hellman will go with junior Isaac Villanueva in the semifinals, like he did last season against Malakoff, who is 14- 1. That would leave senior Riekkhen Bostick, who is 13- 0, in line to start on Saturday.

“My job is to get us to the next round,” Villanueva said. “Anything can happen — we just play to the best of our ability. It’s about doing what we have done all season.”

There also a steadiness to the lineup – none of the regulars are batting under .270 and six are hitting at least .320. Cade Dodson leads at with a .515 average while Trey Oblas is at .480 and Carter Layton is at an even .400.

“You should be playing at your peak this time of year. Friday we expect that,” Hellman said. “You’ve got to get runners on and you’ve got to score them.”

London ended 2021 with a 33-6 mark but this version of the Pirates struggled during the regular season, including a five-game losing streak before entering the playoffs and a 5-5 record after the first 10 games.

In the postseason London lost just once — the middle game of the Region IV final against district rival Bishop, whom it tied atop the 30-3A standings and got revenge for losing two out of three, including a tie-breaker contest for the top seed. London won 3-1 and 4-3 around a 3-2 loss to eliminate Bishop in the region final for the second straight season.

Out of London’s eight postseason victories, half were by a single run and another was by two.

To get to state, the Pirates pulled out that pivotal Game 3 thanks to a two-run homer from Jayden Martinez while Jacob Gonzales and Mason Arispe added RBI doubles.

“We’re both really good teams. We both know it’s going to be a battle,” Rigsby said. “Both of us want it bad.”


What: Gunter vs. London

When: 9 a.m. Friday

Where: Dell Diamond in Round Rock

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