ABBOTT — As traffic barrels up and down I-35, the Abbott baseball team practices about 200 yards away on an old field backed by a small cluster of aluminum stands.
The parking lot is filled with the Panthers’ Ford F-150 and Chevrolet trucks. A couple of goats are chewing grass in an adjacent field.
Country music star Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away” blasts from a mobile speaker outside of the dugout.
Take your best shot, show me what you got
Honey, I’m not afraid.
In some ways those words summarize what the Abbott Panthers are all about. For the last two years, they’ve taken everybody’s best shot and have emerged a stronger, more determined team.
They won the 2017 Class 1A state championship last June with an 11-7 win over Fayetteville at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond. A day earlier, Hunter “Joe Bob” Pope threw a no-hitter in a 12-0 blowout of Union Hill in the semifinals to reach the title game.
On Wednesday at 9 a.m., the Panthers will be back at Dell Diamond for a rematch against Fayetteville in the state semifinals. A program that had never won a state title now has an opportunity to win two straight.
“Going to state once is really exciting, but to go back to back is amazing,” said Abbott senior catcher Matthew Urbanovsky. “It was a little harder this time. The seniors we lost last year were good. With all the kids who stepped into their roles, it was a little rough from the start. But then we hit our stride and kept going.”
Repeating as champions would mean a lot to this town of about 400 people that sits on 371 acres 24 miles north of Waco. Nobody knows that better than baseball coach Kyle Crawford, a 2009 Abbott High School graduate who came back home in 2014 after graduating from Texas A&M.
As the son of longtime Abbott football coach Terry Crawford, Kyle played football along with most other sports the school offered.
Abbott is best known as the hometown of Willie Nelson but it’s got a strong six-man football tradition. In 2015, Terry Crawford led Abbott to its first six-man state title with his son at his side as an assistant coach.
Kyle wanted to lift the baseball program to the same heights, and in just his third season as coach the Panthers broke through with last year’s Class 1A state championship.
“I would think winning it anywhere would be awesome but to do it in your hometown means a little bit more for sure,” Kyle Crawford said. “The baseball program here not that long ago was kind of down and out. To win a state championship and to go back and try to win another one, and just to see the community support has been awesome. We bring a big crowd wherever we go.”
Abbott plays baseball in District 15-2A. But beginning last season Class 2A baseball teams that played 1A football were sent into the 1A baseball playoffs, and Abbott thrived in the new format.
Last year’s team had few bumps in the road as it finished 29-3-1 after storming past Union Hill and Fayetteville in the state tournament.
But this year’s squad had to replace state tournament MVP Brent Mynar and some other talented seniors. The Panthers lost their first four games and were still struggling to find consistency as they entered the second half of District 15-2A play.
But the Panthers found their groove and won their last eight district games to tie Itasca for the title with a 12-2 record.
“We’ve been through a lot this year,” Crawford said. “We battled some injuries through the year. Matthew Urbanovsky, our catcher, is an excellent player. He battled a hand injury and we lost him for a couple of weeks in the middle of district. Once we got everybody healthy about the second time through district we really started rolling.”
Following a bi-district bye, the Panthers split their first two games against Lipan in the regional quarterfinals before finishing off the series with a 13-1 win. Abbott was also tested in the regional semifinals as Avalon rallied for a 9-8 win to tie the series at a game apiece before the Panthers romped to a 14-2 win in the third game.
Abbott blasted through the region finals with relative ease with 14-5 and 5-0 wins over Dodd City. While their 20-9-1 record isn’t as sparkling as last season, the Panthers feel confident they can win the title again.
“It was a little bit harder because we had a bunch of young people come up and step in and fill big shoes,” said Abbott pitcher Brandan Brown. “So we just kept that positive attitude. It (the state tournament) will be fun again like last year, but we know we have to play to win and we’re there to finish off the season on a good note.”
Since they played at Dell Diamond last year, the Panthers feel comfortable in their return to the state semifinals. They don’t expect to be overwhelmed by the big stage because they’ve been there before. With nine seniors, they’ve got plenty of experience.
“Our older guys that were there last year will help the younger guys not get the jitters and take it as just another game,” Pope said. “Hopefully we can go out and take care of that. We’re scrappy. No one is going to go up there and be scared. They know what they’ve got to do.”
Abbott’s biggest strength is an offense that features talented hitters up and down the lineup.
Pope leads the Panthers with a .538 batting average while collecting 16 doubles, three homers and 35 RBIs. Urbanovsky is hitting .458 with six doubles, six triples and 25 RBIs and a team-high 48 runs. Third baseman Matthew Pevehouse is hitting .415 with 11 doubles and 32 RBIs.
Brown is hitting .359 with four homers and a team-high 42 RBIs and center fielder Nolan Kaska is hitting .368 with 20 RBIs. The Panthers call themselves “The Pack” because they believe it takes a unified, goal-oriented team to win at a high level.
“We set the tone offensively without a doubt,” Crawford said. “That’s where it starts for us. We go back to our pack mentality and that’s kind of the root of it there in our offensive approach. We’re going to keep coming after you wave after wave. One through nine, we don’t feel like we have any holes in our lineup.”
With Mynar graduating last spring, Crawford needed someone to step up as Abbott’s ace on the mound. Brown, a 6-3, 215-pound left-hander, has become that man as he’s gone 10-0 with a 2.40 ERA while Urbanovsky, Pope, Pevehouse and Larry Hromadka are reliable pitchers.
“Brandan Brown has been outstanding,” Crawford said. “We’ve gotten an ace type of year from him and we needed that because we lost a really good one in Brent Mynar last year. Brandan was in the mix as a second or third pitcher who threw quite a bit last year. He had always kind of played second fiddle behind Brent, but this is his year and he’s stepped up big time.”
The Panthers know they’ll need more than one great pitching performance to win the championship. Pope proved that last year when he threw a no-hitter against Union Hill in the state semifinals.
“My grandpa had passed six months before that semifinals game,” Pope said. “I remember I had his Bible and his picture in the dugout, and every time I looked at it I could just see him looking down on me. It was special. I never pitched that great in my life, but there was something special there that day.”
Crawford is proud of how his team keeps fighting regardless of how dire the circumstances appear. With one state championship already in their back pocket, the Panthers know how special a second one would be.
“A coach told us these kids just have a nose for the finish line,” Crawford said. “That’s an outstanding quality to have, not only in baseball but also in life.”