LUBBOCK – There’s a junction ahead, and it’s a rather grand one for the McLennan Community College baseball team.
Sixth-ranked MCC wasn’t fazed by coming out of the loser’s bracket. The Highlanders didn’t blink when they faced a six-run deficit in the early stages of the Region V championship game.
That plucky MCC team rallied past Weatherford to win the regional title with a 14-8 victory on Tuesday afternoon at Texas Tech’s Dan Law Field.
As the regional tournament champion, MCC (51-11) will advance to the Junior College World Series, May 27-June 2 in Grand Junction, Colo. It marks the sixth World Series trip in program history and the second in the tenure of fourth-year head coach Mitch Thompson, who also guided the Highlanders to Grand Junction in 2015, when they reached the national final before falling.
Thompson said that after his team fell into the loser’s bracket with a 4-3 loss to Weatherford on Saturday, he and his coaches sat down with the players and laid out a plan.
“One thing we know as coaches is that we have a lot of character on this team,” Thompson said. “Not characters, but character. These guys are warriors, and they’ve seriously been wanting this and expecting this since August.
“After we lost that Saturday game to Weatherford, we lined it up for them, spent five minutes on it. Here’s how it’s going to work, here’s who is pitching when. And dadgummit if they didn’t follow that exact script.”
The Highlanders won five straight elimination games after that defeat, including playing doubleheaders on both Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday, it looked as though their journey may come derailed, as the Coyotes (35-23) scampered out to a 6-0 lead after an inning and a half. Andrew Keefer smacked a grand slam in a six-run second inning for Weatherford.
“Getting down 6-0 was discouraging, especially because we made some uncharacteristic errors, we weren’t throwing strikes,” Thompson said. “We knew we needed a spark. So we brought in Palmer Wenzel. He’s been our go-to closer, but we knew we needed to stop that run by Weatherford and try to see if we could chip away. That’s what Palmer did. What a stud.”
The Highlanders’ plan worked. Wenzel, who took the mound in the fourth for Bailey Horn, neutralized the Coyote bats while MCC’s hitters started to cut down the lead a piece at a time. MCC scored a run in the second, two in the fourth, then pulled to within 6-5 in the sixth thanks to Josh Breaux’s two-run smash over the left-field fence.
An inning later, the fuse lit and MCC exploded, taking the lead with a seven-run outburst. Mario Vela delivered a sweet bunt single for an RBI, and later Chris Roller came through in the clutch again, belting a two-run triple to push the Highlanders into the lead. By the time Nic Motley drilled a two-run home run, the Highlanders felt like they couldn’t be beaten.
“It’s a contagious thing, one guy buying into the other,” Thompson said. “It was fun to watch.”
The Highlanders came out of that inning with a 12-6 lead. Weatherford fought back to within 12-8 in the eighth on a two-run homer from Dezmond Chumley. But MCC responded with another two-spot in the bottom of the inning, then closed out the game in the ninth, turning a double play to seal the win.
Breaux went 3-for-5 with a homer and five RBIs, while Roller, Vela and Cole Haring also had three hits apiece for the Highlanders, who tallied 18 hits in all. Wenzel picked up the win, while Austin Cornish was saddled with the loss for Weatherford.
MCC moves on to Grand Junction as the Southwest representative. It will face the Eastern qualifier on May 28 at 8:30 p.m. Central time.
“It’s awesome,” Thompson said. “I’m telling you, coming out of Region V, it’s just an unbelievable dogfight every year.”