Three games into Ryan’s baseball season, the Raiders were winless and things almost unraveled before the year had even begun.
Ryan hosted its annual tournament, the James Taylor Classic, and the Raiders failed to muster a win in front of their friends and family members. After Ryan’s final game of the tournament, the disappointment was evident as the Raiders trudged off the field.
“Your friends didn’t really know what to say to you,” senior shortstop Brandon Taylor said. “We kind of just walked straight to the locker room because we didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
The start to the season hardly foreshadowed the end of the season.
Ryan (24-12) went on to win its eighth district championship and advanced to the Class 4A Region I semifinals, losing to Waco Midway last weekend. It was the deepest Ryan has traveled in the playoffs since reaching the state championship game in 2003 and 2004.
“We went in knowing that we had a chance to be pretty good if we did certain things well,” Ryan head coach Bret Warnack said. “We didn’t start out executing like we knew we had to in order to win ballgames, but those guys made a big adjustment in their attitudes and their work ethic.
“We knew we had to be consistent with what we did on a daily basis, and they decided they were going to do that.”
Ryan senior outfielder and pitcher James Marshall helped trigger the change in mentality. Marshall, the team’s de facto captain — Warnack doesn’t name captains — called a players-only meeting after the Ryan tournament.
The Raiders settled any disagreements amongst themselves, and on a piece of poster board wrote down team goals like no trash talking, a team batting average and a time to be on the field or face extra running.
Warnack sat in his office while his team set its priorities.
“The fact that I couldn’t hear anything in my office — there wasn’t any yelling, there wasn’t any screaming — it was [Marshall] kind of holding court in there,” Warnack said. “They made a decision amongst themselves that they were going to do what it takes to win.”
The Raiders went on to win 13 of their next 14 games. The race for the District 4-4A crown tightened as the season wound down, with Ryan, Lake Dallas, Wichita Falls and Wichita Falls Rider eyeing a share of the title on the last day of the regular season.
Ryan beat Wichita Falls 16-5 in a one-game playoff for the district’s top seed and the 4-4A title.
From there, different players stepped up for the Raiders throughout the playoffs.
The 4-4A champs toppled Dumas, El Paso Andress and Lake Dallas before being swept by Midway in a thrilling best-of-three series.
Without any highly touted college prospects, the Raiders were led by their 12 seniors.
“Not one guy carried us throughout the season,” Warnack said. “It wasn’t like we just had one or two guys that dominated other teams. I felt like we had a great team.”
Senior catcher Tanner Whitlock broke the school’s season hits record with 53 hits, breaking the mark set by Austin Jackson, who now plays for the Detroit Tigers. Jackson had 49 hits in 2003.
Marshall hit .376 for the year, while senior left fielder Hunter Whitlock, Tanner’s twin brother, batted .353 with a team-high two home runs.
The Raiders’ pitching staff was anchored by junior Chris McKeehan, who finished with 87 innings pitched. McKeehan went 11-2 with a 1.45 ERA and nine complete games.
Senior Travis Wiley went 4-4 with a 2.51 ERA while batting .330 at the plate. McKeehan said the team’s closed-door meeting at the beginning of the season played a huge role in Ryan’s midseason turnaround.
“I think we were more consistent with everything we did, from practices to hitting in the cages to just showing up on time,” McKeehan said. “I think everyone was more in it because we realized we had to be to compete at a high level.”
Once again, Ryan faces the challenge of losing a bunch of seniors. And next season the Raiders will be moving up to Class 5A. But after dispelling any notions of mediocrity with a strong postseason run, Ryan has a surge of momentum as it moves up the ranks.
“We didn’t win the whole thing, but getting that far and proving people wrong was enough for me,” Taylor said.
BEN BABY can be reached 940-566-6869. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .