The urgency wasn’t there.
As China Spring closed out its regular season with back-to-back losses against Lorena and Gatesville, Jesse Lopez wasn’t seeing that certain something that separated the winners and losers.
Which was the theme of his message to his Cougars before the playoffs began.
“We have to play with our backs against the wall like it’s our last game,” Lopez said. “That’s the way we want to approach every game. We have to give it our all.”
At that moment, China Spring’s back was squarely against the wall.
The Cougars didn’t have any time to decide whether they liked that idea or not. It came down to buying into what their coach taught them or keep doing what they’d been doing.
And a week later, Lopez saw that edge from his team in a 9-0 warm-up win over Grandview.
“Our kids are tough-minded kids,” Lopez said. “Most of them play football, and they have that mindset that someone may punch them but they’ll punch right back. They fight until the end.”
With that sudden change in the Cougars’ mindset, China Spring was off to an ideal start in the playoffs.
The Cougars won their bi-district series over Palestine, 6-3, 16-3, before traveling to Giddings for the first of a three-game series a week later.
Lopez knew that Friday night contest would be tough to pull off on the road.
China Spring trailed 4-3 heading into the top of the seventh. With runners on first and second and no outs, Blake Golden singled to center field to tie the game at four.
The Cougars went up by one off an RBI double by Hobbs Price before a sacrifice fly by Levi Bass put China Spring up by two.
When the defense took the field, China Spring retired Giddings in order to win the first game of the series.
And the Cougars have carried that momentum since then, according to Lopez.
But the coach believes the team’s biggest moment came in the following series against Liberty Hill.
The Cougars were run-ruled, 13-3, in Liberty Hill on a Friday night and had less than 24 hours to bounce back and try to win the series.
Talk about playing with their backs against the wall.
China Spring fought for a 7-4 win in the second game of the season — behind a 4-for-4 outing at the plate by Price — before run-ruling Liberty Hill, 10-0, later that day in five innings as Carson Bell allowed just one hit.
“We knew we had a tough road ahead,” Lopez said. “To see them come back in Games 2 and 3, to me, said something. We turned the switch on. We know we’re capable of doing anything. To see them do that against one of the best teams turned the lights on for a lot of these kids.”
Out of the 32 teams from 3A to 6A in the regional finals, only six of them have double-digit losses this season.
China Spring is one of those teams.
But showing from the unranked Cougars’ fight throughout each round, it’s no fluke that they’re just a win away from Austin.
“It’s been crazy, that’s for sure,” Lopez said. “This is something our kids work toward every year. They’re deserving. We’ve put in a lot of work during the year.”
In a playoff run full of late-inning heroics, it hasn’t been the same Cougar over and over again. Instead, different China Spring players have stepped up big time at different moments over the past month of postseason play.
“We’re a total team,” Lopez said. “It’s not just one guy doing it. It may be one guy one game but then another guy another game. We don’t want to try to do to much. We just want to do what we’re capable of doing. All we care about is winning the game. Teams like this want to get it done. You can see by the different heroes we’ve had that we don’t care who gets it done as long as we keep moving along.”
It’s been nearly two months since the last time the Cougars faced Robinson.
From Lopez’s perspective, China Spring is a whole different ball club since then.
And it boils down to one reason why — confidence.
“We grew up,” Lopez said. “I think early on we were still trying to find ourselves. Our goal was to get better and be better. It happened. Confidence is the biggest deal. The guys are feeling it. They’re believing in themselves.”
China Spring has a storied history in baseball. The Cougars won the state championship in 1987, 1989, 1993 and 2000.
China Spring is tied for 10th across the state with seven state tournament appearances in program history — 1979, 1987, 1989, 1991-93, 2000.
That number could reach eight with a win against Robinson Thursday night.
“This program has always been at a high level,” Lopez said. “We’ve had good coaches and good players. It’s always been expected that we want to win a state championship. We have some really good talent and players coming up and in our program now. Maybe the kids can see it more now. We’re right there. We’re one win away.”