Valley Mills baseball

Valley Mills reached the 2A state baseball tournament last year, but opens this season unranked in the preseason poll. Nevertheless, the standard hasn’t changed. “It’s always ‘State or Bust,’” said Valley Mills coach Shane Keeton.

Polls are polls. They’re fun for generating discussion, but their usefulness beyond that is debatable.

So, when it comes to managing their teams against outside expectations, Central Texas’ top baseball coaches don’t even worry about it. The internal expectations, the ones emanating from their own dugout, are what matter, they said.

“I just tell the kids that the poll’s just paper,” said Bosqueville coach David Anderson, whose team is ranked sixth in Class 2A to start the season. “We’ve got to go out and execute like we’re supposed to for that ranking to matter. We’ve got to go to work every day. … Our own expectations are always going to be high, because this is Bosqueville baseball.”

First-year Robinson coach Chris Clemons knows the Rockets’ standard. This may be his first year coaching high school baseball, but the former pro scout and former assistant at McLennan Community College is no stranger to the area. He’s lived in the Robinson area for the past 25 years. So, he knows.

“I haven’t even hardly seen that stuff (the rankings),” said Clemons, whose Rockets are ranked seventh in the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association’s preseason 4A poll. “I looked at the magazine at the (coaches) convention, more out of entertainment than anything. These guys set the expectations themselves, and they’re going to be disappointed if we don’t get to a certain round, if we don’t get to Austin.”

Valley Mills, believe it or not, avoided the bull’s-eye of a preseason ranking. The Eagles were state semifinalists in Class 2A in 2019, but graduated several key starters, including infielder/pitcher Cooper Lane and shortstop/pitcher Chase Keeton, the 2019 Super Centex Player of the Year.

Valley Mills coach Shane Keeton, Chase’s father, said he’s not concerned about the rankings, because the Eagles’ goal remains the same every season.

“We set the bar when I got here four years ago,” Shane said. “It wasn’t playoffs, it was getting to the (state) tournament. You’ll hear the kids talking about it or you’ll see quotes hanging in the baseball weight room, and it’s always, ‘State or Bust.’ That’s the kids’ mentality. But we do have some big shoes to fill.”

For Valley Mills, no cleats left deeper footprints than those belonging to Chase Keeton. He served as the team’s ace on the mound, going 7-4 with a 1.35 ERA, and the Eagles’ most accomplished hitter, hitting .533 with 57 runs scored. But the talent hasn’t dried up and blown away completely. Seniors Elijah DeGrate (.418, 34 RBIs) and Cooper Buxkemper (.394, 44 RBIs) have been around the block a few times and know the way to Round Rock’s Dell Diamond. They’ll be counted on as chief navigators.

“That’s a big thing. I’m a big believer that leaders have been there,” Shane Keeton said. “They don’t have to be vocal, they can lead by example. Let the coaches be the ones who are vocal. But guys like Elijah, Buxkemper, Corey McNair, Eli McNair, they’ve been there and they know what it takes.”

Valley Mills’ top district rival Bosqueville is “ready to roll,” Anderson said, behind the return of last year’s entire pitching staff. The Bulldogs should have a well-charged battery whoever takes the mound, thanks to a four-year starter at catcher in Will McClellan, the reigning defensive MVP in District 14-2A.

Bosqueville traversed three rounds deep in last year’s playoffs before dropping a three-game series to Windthorst in the regional semifinals. The Bulldogs have worn that defeat like a tattoo all offseason.

“Last year we had six guys who had played varsity baseball going into the year,” Anderson said. “For them, that series was a great learning experience. After that, the kids were coming up and saying, ‘Coach, we’ll do whatever it takes to make it to Round Rock.’ And they’ve lived up to that, because right now they’re working as hard as I’ve seen a team work.”

A similar hunger could be spotted in Robinson. Clemons called his arrival as Rockets’ head coach “the perfect storm.” Bryan Kent, who had established one of the top 4A programs in the state, opted to step out of coaching to focus on teaching and spending more time with family. That opened up a golden opportunity that Clemons was thrilled to receive.

The Rockets will lean heavily on senior shortstop/pitcher Jordan Rogers, a Wichita State signee who Clemons called “an uber athlete.” Other key returners for Robinson, which went 31-6 in 2019, include Super Centex outfielder Easton Slovacek (.403, 31 RBIs), shortstop/pitcher Jace Walker (.342, 22 stolen bases) and senior Matthew Armes, who is moving from second base to third base.

“The bulk of these guys played football, and they’re eager to start competing again,” Clemons said. “That’s what is nice, is that I’ve seen them get out in practice and really compete. So I’m excited to see what they’ll do in game situations.”

Plenty of Central Texas teams should carry high hopes into the season, whether they’re ranked in any preseason polls or not. Midway, the reigning District 12-6A champion, has the pieces in place to make a nice run, led by returning pitcher Jackson Berry and transfer Ben Smedshammer, last year’s Super Centex Newcomer of the Year at Lorena.

Speaking of Lorena, the Leopards won 26 games and reached the regional quarterfinals last year, and Brandon Graves’ team should remain a feisty one. China Spring boasts some of the top players in the area in sophomore catcher Brayden Faulkner and senior Jacob Kulogoswki, while Mexia boasts blistering team speed on the basepaths that many rivals would envy.

In Class 3A, Troy enters the year as the No. 7-ranked team, and should smell sweet anytime junior hurler Hagen Rose (12-2, 2.31 ERA) takes the hill. Clifton, behind ace Mason Brandenberger, and West should field strong contenders in 3A as well. The Trojans will undoubtedly be looking to send longtime coach Cory Beckham out in style, as Beckham is in his last season at West before heading south to start the Lake Belton program.

In 2A, besides Bosqueville and Valley Mills keep an eye on Crawford, a regional quarterfinalist in 2019, Riesel, which went 14-0 in District 16-2A, and Mart, which should benefit from the return of Kyler Martin from injury.

And in 1A, Abbott has made a tradition out of carving out deep playoff runs. The Panthers should make another run at Round Rock behind returning stars like Matthew Pevehouse, Kadyn Johnson and Jax Miller.

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