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NEXT STOP, COLORADO: Temple resident and 2014 Belton graduate Andrew Paysse will compete in his first U.S. Amateur Championship beginning Monday at Colorado Golf Club in Parker, followed by another stroke-play qualifying round Tuesday at Cherry Hills Country Club south of Denver. The 28-year-old Texas A&M product and former pro golfer will compete in his third straight U.S. Mid-Amateur in September at Sleepy Hollow in New York. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)




By GREG WILLE


For a very long time, Andrew Paysse played golf, practiced golf and thought about his golf game essentially all the time. And his unwavering commitment to the pursuit of maximizing his potential in the sport certainly paid dividends.

Paysse won the Class 5A individual state championship as a Belton High School junior in 2013. He compiled a steady four-year career for the Texas A&M men’s golf team. After graduating and turning professional in 2018, the Temple resident fired a final-round 62 to place second in the Texas State Open and earn $22,500.

However, Paysse did not advance past the first stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying in October 2018. And after experiencing mixed results on the All Pro Tour from 2018-19 and on PGA Tour Canada in 2019, he decided to stop chasing the dream of a long, lucrative pro golf career and come back home to Central Texas.

“The travel was more difficult than I thought. I went to Canada and enjoyed it but just didn’t enjoy the travel and the grind of every week, hotel room to hotel room. I’m a little bit of a homebody,” Paysse said. “College is great, because you’re always with teammates and coaches and everything’s planned out, they’re paying for it and you don’t travel all year.”

Now, fast-forward to August 2023. Paysse turned 28 on Thursday. He and his wife, Callie, whose birthday also was Thursday, got married in January 2021. They reside in Temple with their 14-month-old son, Hayes. Paysse operates an independent insurance agency in Temple.

(His brother-in-law is world No. 1-ranked golfer and 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, but more about that later.)

“I don’t regret stopping playing professionally, especially now with a wife and a young kid,” Paysse said. “I really don’t know how they do it, especially on the mini-tours and Korn Ferry level.”

However, anyone who thinks Paysse permanently put high-level competitive golf in his rearview mirror has got another thing coming.

Paysse’s application to regain his amateur status eventually was approved in 2021. After more than a decade of unfruitful attempts to qualify for his first United States Golf Association championship, he finally achieved that goal at age 26 by getting into the 2021 U.S. Mid-Amateur at Sankaty Head on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts, where he advanced to match play and reached the second round.

“It’s so fun. I’d never played in a USGA event until the Mid-Am two years ago, which is crazy,” he said. “I tried a long time. They’re just so hard to qualify for.”

Paysse earned a return trip to the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2022 and recorded three 1-up victories to advance to the quarterfinals at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, gaining a coveted exemption for his third consecutive appearance in the USGA’s 25-and-older championship in September at Sleepy Hollow outside New York City.

Three straight Mid-Am berths would constitute a sufficiently impressive second act for Paysse in his successful golf career, but what he achieved last month catapulted him to a whole different level.

After deciding to enter a U.S. Amateur qualifier only because it would be contested at Texas A&M’s home course of Traditions Club in Bryan on July 10, Paysse tied four players for the best 36-hole score on a long, hot, humid day. He then advanced from a 5-for-3 playoff to capture one of the site’s three spots in the 123rd U.S. Amateur at venerable Cherry Hills Country Club, just south of Denver.

When Paysse tees off Monday morning in the opening round of stroke-play qualifying at Colorado Golf Club in Parker, 30 miles southeast of Denver, he’ll find himself competing in the world’s most prestigious amateur golf tournament – just as his younger brother, current aspiring pro William Paysse, did in the 2020 and 2021 U.S. Amateurs.

For Andrew, golf no longer is a job or feels like a grind. He still plays golf because he enjoys competing, loves the game and remains very skilled at it.

“It’s fun. It’s better now that I don’t do it for a living, because it’s not do-or-die. It’s not my job or my livelihood out there playing now,” Paysse, wearing a Masters shirt and an Aggies hat, said last Friday in the clubhouse at Wildflower Country Club, his family’s longtime hometown course. “It’s more of a bonus, a vacation almost. It’s still competitive, but it’s more for fun.

“It’s weird – in this game you can actually play better with that attitude. It seems like the harder you try, the harder it is to play well. Sometimes you can get in your own way.”

After a practice round at Colorado Golf Club on Saturday and one at Cherry Hills on Sunday, Paysse will begin the U.S. Amateur at 8:11 a.m. CDT Monday on the first hole at Colorado Golf Club. Moving to Cherry Hills on Tuesday, his second round of stroke-play qualifying starts at 1:41 p.m. CDT on the 10th hole.

Paysse’s playing partners both days will be New Orleans incoming junior Kyle Bennett and Purdue senior-to-be Herman Sekne from Norway.

After 36 holes of stroke play, the field of 312 players will be reduced to 64 for match play competition at Cherry Hills, beginning Wednesday and concluding with Sunday’s 36-hole championship match.

Paysse said his goal in the mountains of Colorado is to play well enough get into that 64-player bracket for match play, and he realizes that will be a tough task against top-notch college players and elite amateurs from across the world.

“I know at the U.S. Am it’s going to be very difficult. It’s going to be very firm and fast, the rough’s going to be up I’m sure and it’ll be a challenge. But it’s just a bonus to be here,” he said. “You’ve just got to go play solid, and that’s what I’ve been doing in these events – just go have fun and hit good shots.

“With how tough it’s playing, you just keep double bogeys off the card and play well – similar to the Mid-Am. Obviously it’s more difficult in the Am to get into the top 64, but in a similar situation I’ve been able to make the top 64 the last two years in the Mid-Am and that definitely gives me confidence going into this one, even though it’s a lot better field and probably a more difficult setup.”


FRESH PERSPECTIVE: After pursuing a pro golf career from 2018-19, Temple resident and Belton graduate Andrew Paysse regained his amateur status in 2021 and that year finally qualified for his first USGA Championship, the U.S. Mid-Amateur. His wife and caddie, Callie, and 14-month-old son, Hayes, will be with him for the U.S. Amateur near Denver beginning Monday. "It's fun. It's better now that I don't do it for a living, because it's not do-or-die. It's still competitive, but it's more for fun," said Paysse, 28, whose brother-in-law is world No. 1-ranked golfer and 2022 Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)



When William Paysse competed in his first U.S. Amateur in 2020 at Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Andrew caddied for him. Andrew Paysse’s caddie in the U.S. Amateur will be his wife, who also caddied for him in the 2021 and 2022 Mid-Amateurs. Callie played golf from 2014-17 at Texas A&M, where she and her future husband began dating, and Andrew said she’s a dedicated walker, so it’s an efficient and inexpensive arrangement for them.

“I don’t know how I’ll make it up. She doesn’t like when I buy anything for her, so no payment on either end,” Andrew said with a laugh, mentioning that Callie also will carry the bag when he plays his third straight U.S. Mid-Amateur from Sept. 9-14 in New York.

Their son is traveling with them for the U.S. Amateur, where they’ll be joined by Paysse's parents, Temple residents Kenny and Becky Paysse, and Callie’s parents, Scott and Diane Scheffler of Dallas.

This is the fourth consecutive year that a Temple-based golfer will compete in the U.S. Amateur. After William Paysse played in 2020 at Bandon Dunes and in 2021 at Oakmont in Pennsylvania (reaching the first round of match play), Temple High School graduate Daniel Moon played a year ago at Ridgewood in New Jersey, where then-Texas A&M player Sam Bennett won the championship.

“That’s pretty cool,” Andrew Paysse said. “It goes to show how talented a lot of the golfers from here have been. It’s not only Willie and me. There’s been a lot of great players grow up here and come through this area.”

With a wife, a young son and a business to run, Paysse doesn’t devote anywhere close to as much time honing his golf game as he used to. He said he plays golf “at most once a week, probably once every two weeks." Still, he maintains an impressive +3.6 USGA handicap index.

“The past few weeks I’ve been trying to come out here (at Wildflower) during lunch or between the time I leave work and pick up my son from day care. I’ll hit balls for 20 minutes just to keep my feels and hit a few putts and chips,” said Paysse, who also stays sharp by hitting wedge shots in his side yard at home, often with his son watching him.

“I set flags up and have targets I hit wedges at. I have a reel mower and keep it at half an inch in my front yard, so that is definitely one of my hobbies,” he said with a grin, noting that he wanted to study turf grass management at A&M but couldn’t because the program's afternoon labs conflicted with the Aggies’ golf practices. “I’d probably rather mow the yard than play golf nowadays. My son likes to be out there.”

Even after advancing to his second straight U.S. Mid-Amateur a year ago, Paysse didn’t plan to attempt to qualify for this year’s U.S. Amateur – that is, until he learned that Traditions, his old college stomping grounds, was scheduled to host a 36-hole qualifier.

“Legitimately, there’s no way I would have tried to qualify for the U.S. Am if it wasn’t at Traditions. There’s no way I would’ve driven several hours and stayed in a hotel room to try to qualify, especially just because it’s so hard,” Paysse said. “But I heard the year before that it would be at Traditions and I was like, ‘I want to play in that.’ And I was playing fairly well going into the qualifier.”

Asked if he had played Texas A&M’s home course hundreds of times throughout the years, Paysse quickly responded: “Thousands.”

“I played Traditions quite a bit before college, and for every tournament we played at least a three-round qualifier and we had something like 12 tournaments a year,” explained Paysse, who in recent years has served as an A&M volunteer assistant golf coach. “Basically we played it just about every day during college. After graduating I stayed at Traditions and played and practiced there as a pro, so it’s been a long, long time.”

With only three qualifying berths available in a field of 80 players, Paysse knew that he’d need to take full advantage of his accumulated knowledge of Traditions – a brawny, demanding course designed by Jack Nicklaus and Jack Nicklaus II – to have a shot to move on to his first U.S. Amateur.

“It definitely helped having the home-field advantage, especially with the little rust that I have and not being as sharp as I was in college, for sure,” Paysse said. “I was playing fine (coming into the qualifier) and I knew if I played well I had a good chance, just because of how difficult Traditions plays.

“I struggled at Traditions before college. I never seemed to play it well. It’s visually intimidating, and there’s some pins where you have to know the good spots to be. I know the greens there probably as well as I know Wildflower’s greens. I just know all the ins and outs of Traditions, and somehow after playing it a ton early in college I got to where I was really good there.”

Using a pushcart for the 36-hole qualifier instead of taking a caddie on a sweltering July day, Paysse shot 1-over-par 37 on his first nine holes – the back nine at Traditions – before rallying with birdies on three of his final four holes to post a 2-under 70 and stay firmly in the hunt.

However, Paysse then struggled on the first nine holes of his afternoon round, hitting his ball into hazards on three holes while making two bogeys and a double bogey en route to a 4-over 40, pushing him to 2 over through 27 holes.

“I would say I was a little down after that, knowing that nine-hole stretch might have cost me. But I knew with how hot it was and how difficult it was playing, I still had a slight chance,” he said. “It was just a few loose shots and some rust showing. It’s what comes with not being as sharp as I’d want to be, and I accept that I’m going to hit a few loose shots. It’s OK.”

What kick-started Paysse’s positive momentum was a skillful, vital par save at the par-4 ninth hole.

“I short-sided (the approach shot) right of the back-right pin and had a terrible lie in the rough. I’m taking a chance flopping it over a bunker (with a 60-degree wedge), and I hit it to a foot (and saved par). You just send it up in the air and hope it stops like it did. It came off perfect,” he recalled. “Even though I still turned at 4 over, it gave me a boost of momentum.

“It was like, ‘OK, that was a good shot. Let’s see if we can make some birdies.’ I knew it was going to be tough to shoot several under on the back nine, especially because it’s the fourth nine of the day and I’m tired. But what turned it around was that shot on No. 9.”

Chugging water and electrolyte drinks to stay hydrated as the temperature surpassed 100, Paysse made birdies on Nos. 11, 12 and 14 and added six pars on the back nine to fire 3-under 33 for a 1-over 73 and a 36-hole total of 1-under 143.

“I’m not in the shape I was in in college – the golf shape of being able to walk that much. I mean, I was exhausted. It was 107 degrees and humid,” said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Paysse, adding that he’s “lost quite a bit of weight this year.” “Somehow I got through 36 holes, then people kept piling up at 1 under and I was lucky to get into a playoff. You never know.”

In fading daylight, five players returned to the par-4 18th hole to battle in a playoff for three tickets to the U.S. Amateur.

“I teed off last with a bunch of college kids. I was the old man,” Paysse joked.

All five players hit good drives, but Paysse’s long drive that carried the left fairway bunker and ran out was ideal. His controlled wedge approach stopped within 10 feet and underneath the hole, whereas none of the other contenders got it nearly that close.

“They all hit their (third-shot) chips and bunker shots to 10 or 15 feet and they’re scrambling for par, and one guy missed before I putted. Basically I just needed to get it close, so I lagged it to 2 inches and tapped it in,” Paysse said. “Two other guys missed their par putts afterward, so that secured it.”

Paysse and Zach Kingsland clinched their U.S. Am spots with pars on the first playoff hole; because of darkness, the three players who bogeyed it had to return to Traditions the next morning, with Finn Burkholder surviving to nab the final berth.

“We could barely see when we were finishing. It would have been very frustrating to have to stay an extra night, not getting to come home to my wife and child after a long day on the course and missing another half day of work,” Paysse said. “I’d have been thinking about it all night.”

Despite being physically and mentally drained after a grueling 37-hole day, Paysse still was able to feel the exhilaration of qualifying for his first U.S. Amateur – on his home turf, to boot.

“I was very excited. I was elated,” said Paysse, whose gallery included some Traditions golf pros and members. “I’ve gotten to be close with a few USGA officials over the years from doing it for a long time, and they were happy for me. It was really cool to have that experience at Traditions because of all the memories I’ve had there, like meeting my wife there when she played on the team.”

Speaking of the former Callie Scheffler, in April she received a surprise invitation to play Augusta National Golf Club on the Sunday leading into Masters week, courtesy of her brother, Scottie, the famed tournament’s 2022 champion. Being a busy wife and mother, she hasn’t played golf since then.

“That was her last round, at Augusta. I think her clubs are still in the travel case,” Paysse said. “She doesn’t play a whole lot, but it’s crazy – when she goes out, she plays just fine. I watched her tee off on No. 1 and she smoked it down the middle. That’s all I was allowed to see. I think she shot in the high 70s. She’s a really good putter and the caddies were blown away by how quickly she adjusted to the green speeds at Augusta, because that apparently just doesn’t happen.”

Paysse and Scottie Scheffler, 27, were 2014 high school graduates and both won individual state championships in 2013 in Austin. Belton’s Paysse took the 5A title at Morris Williams and Dallas Highland Park’s Scheffler seized the 4A crown at Onion Creek. That was the second of three consecutive individual state titles for Scheffler, who three months later won the U.S. Junior Amateur in California.

“Scottie won everything. He was on a different level. I did not play in the tournaments he did as a junior. He played nationally and I kind of stuck around Texas and played the events I could get into, which is fine,” said Paysse, who was paired with Texas star Scheffler for several competitive rounds during their college careers, including the 2018 NCAA Division I Championship at Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Paysse and Scheffler got to know each other better as Paysse dated and eventually married Callie, and the Paysses have had a front-row seat as Scheffler – regarded as the sport’s premier ball-striker – blossomed into the planet’s best golfer.

Paysse and his then-pregnant wife were at Austin Country Club in late March 2022 when the Longhorns product won the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play and ascended to the No. 1 world ranking for the first time. Two weeks later in Georgia they witnessed Scheffler putting on the green jacket after winning the Masters for his first major victory. And this past March, they were in Florida with their infant son as Scheffler captured the Players Championship.

“That was fun. I don’t know if he’s that concerned with the No. 1 ranking in the world. It’s just winning the tournament with family there that’s special for him. It’s special for us,” said Paysse, whose family now spends Masters week on vacation at Augusta, watching Scheffler and the world’s elite compete. “Scottie would probably admit that he’s an emotional guy to begin with, which I am, too. It's fun.”

Scheffler’s staggering success hasn’t surprised Paysse, who long ago recognized Scheffler's natural ability.

“There’s certain guys you just know are going to be on the PGA Tour one day, and Scottie was one of them. He’s so talented,” Paysse said. “Watching him play, you can see it. It’s clear as day. He works hard and has a great mind. He’s a good athlete and definitely fun to play other sports with as a brother-in-law. And he’s a really, really nice guy.”

Paysse said his golf rounds nowadays with the Dallas-based Scheffler are “few and far between” as Scheffler enjoys relaxing with family whenever he takes a break from the PGA Tour.

“Scottie plays so much, so in his off time and family time he doesn’t want to be playing golf,” Paysse said. “We still spend a lot of time together with family, but we’re just cooking and hanging out.”

Paysse said TaylorMade has been helpful with sending him new clubs since he started competing in USGA championships.

“Having Scottie as your brother-in-law definitely doesn’t hurt if you need a club or a golf ball or two,” Paysse said, smiling.

William Paysse, 23, the youngest of three brothers, recently embarked on his own pro golf career after a five-year stay at Texas A&M that featured two individual wins – one in Wisconsin last September at the same time Andrew was reaching the U.S. Mid-Amateur quarterfinals at nearby Erin Hills.

William, a 2018 Belton graduate who’s engaged to get married in December to another former Texas A&M women’s golfer, has earned more than $11,000 in three events on the All Pro Tour this summer. He plans to compete at DP World Tour Qualifying School next month in Austria before beginning Korn Ferry Tour qualifying in October.

“Willie’s rocking and rolling. He graduated and was ready to go play professional golf,” Andrew Paysse said. “He probably had a better college career than I did. He was very talented from a young age.”

Paysse said his competitive nature was forged by childhood battles with his brother Jonathan, who’s 2½ years older – he works with father Kenny at a Temple insurance agency – and was a skilled multi-sport athlete at Belton.

“All three of us are very competitive, but Jonathan and I is where I got my competitive spirit. He was bigger and a great athlete,” Paysse said. “Jonathan and I would play nine holes at Wildflower on a Sunday afternoon, and whoever lost would probably pick a fight with the other one on the course. We really went at it.”

Paysse will need to summon that competitive spirit, the same kind he demonstrated a month ago at Traditions, in his U.S. Amateur debut in Colorado’s thin air. The elevation of Cherry Hills is 5,300 feet, while Colorado Golf Club is even higher at approximately 6,000 feet. He gained experience playing at high altitude in some PGA Tour Canada events.

“In western Canada we played at some altitude. It’s an adjustment, but I’ve done it enough to where I know how to adjust,” Paysse said. “It’s the combination of altitude and a firm golf course that knocks spin off the ball, and usually the courses at altitude tend to firm out quicker because the air is drier, so they can get it playing really tough. There’s certain shots where you need maximum spin.”

Paysse said he’s heard that Colorado Golf Club, which was designed by Bill Coore and two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw of Austin and opened in 2007, “is very good, maybe even the more difficult of the two. That’s about all I know.”

Cherry Hills – a classic 1922 William Flynn layout that Golf Digest ranks as the country’s 68th-best course – presents not only great design variety and bold features but also significantly more championship history.

It hosted the 1960 U.S. Open, in which Arnold Palmer – trailing by seven strokes when the final round began – famously drove the green on the 343-yard first hole to spark a run of six birdies in seven holes en route to a 65 for a two-shot comeback win over 20-year-old amateur Jack Nicklaus. Palmer, then in his prime, also outdueled 47-year-old Ben Hogan to earn his only U.S. Open victory.

Phil Mickelson won the 1990 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills, which also hosted the 1978 U.S. Open won by Andy North and the 2012 U.S. Amateur. Tom Doak’s long-term restoration of the Golden Age course was completed in 2022.

Paysse said he’s embraced the opportunity to play multiple courses in his USGA events.

“I think it’s better, because I get to play two rounds on really good golf courses before I have to play in the tournament. It’s more preparation,” he said. “That gears me up for it and gets me ready to knock some rust off.”

If Paysse reaches the championship match, he’ll join brother-in-law Scheffler in the Masters field next April. His more realistic goal is advancing to the 64-man match play bracket.

“Yes, that would be great. That would be fantastic,” Paysse said. “The more golf, the better.”

Sounds like fun.

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By GREG WILLE


The Texas high school baseball playoffs began two weeks ago with 32 teams in each region of each classification. But with postseason play now in its third week, those beefy fields have been trimmed to eight squads in each region, meaning that long-range dreams of reaching the University Interscholastic state tournament are getting closer to becoming a reality.

Four Temple-area teams remain alive in the regional quarterfinal round, all in Region III: Lake Belton in Class 5A, district rivals Gatesville and Salado in 4A and Academy in 3A.

Academy will be the first team to start third-round competition, with the 16th-ranked Bumblebees (24-8-1) battling No. 12 Maypearl (24-8) in a best-of-three series at West High School beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Game 2 is at 7 p.m. Thursday, with a third game set for 1 p.m. Friday if necessary.

In its first season at the 5A level, third-year program Lake Belton (28-7) gets a stern test when the No. 16 Broncos (28-7) challenge No. 3 Magnolia West (27-4) in a best-of-three series at Caldwell High School starting at 7 p.m. Thursday. Game 2 is at 7 p.m. Friday, with an if-needed Game 3 scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday.

District 23-4A members Salado and Gatesville also are gearing up to compete against highly ranked opponents.

Salado’s Eagles (19-10-2) take on the No. 11 Taylor Ducks (26-3-1) in a best-of-three series at Georgetown East View that begins at 6 p.m. Thursday. Game 2 is at 5 p.m. Friday, followed by a third game 30 minutes later if necessary.

Meanwhile, Gatesville’s Hornets (17-15) are going the single-game route against 23-4A rival China Spring (29-3-1), whose Cougars are ranked fifth. They’ll clash at 7 p.m. Thursday at Lake Belton.

Academy, Lake Belton, Salado and Gatesville all have faced and survived an elimination game during the playoffs. In the bi-district round, Salado advanced past Burnet in three games and Gatesville needed three games to defeat Marble Falls. In area-round action last week, Academy eliminated Whitney in Game 3 and Lake Belton earned a Game 3 victory against Elgin.

After sweeping Groesbeck in an area-round series, District 19-3A runner-up Academy ran into previous nemesis Whitney, which eliminated the Bees from the area round of the playoffs in 2021 and 2022. In the teams’ third consecutive second-round matchup, Coach Garrett Vail’s Academy club cruised to a 10-0, five-inning win over 17-3A fourth seed Whitney in Game 1 at Axtell behind senior pitcher Alex Hoffman’s complete game.

The Wildcats responded with a 5-2 victory in Axtell to force a deciding Game 3 last Saturday in Corsicana. After Bees senior righty Alex Lawton escaped some jams to pitch six shutout innings, Academy finally broke through with two runs in the bottom of the sixth to seize a 2-0 lead.

Zane Clark reached on an infield single and scored when Whitney misplayed Lawton’s bunt, then Trey Ward added a sacrifice fly. Hoffman pitched a perfect seventh to save the clinching win, sending the Bees to the Region III quarterfinals.

Academy now battles a strong Maypearl team that has followed a similar playoff path. The Panthers swept bi-district foe Blooming Grove, then beat 19-3A third seed Cameron Yoe 4-1 to open the series in Axtell before the Yoemen answered with a 5-1 win to force Game 3. However, Maypearl encountered no difficulties in the finale, rolling to an 11-1 victory over No. 17 Yoe to earn its trip to the regional quarterfinals.

Maypearl shared the 17-3A championship with Grandview at 9-1, then beat the Zebras 4-1 in a tiebreaker game to grab the district’s No. 1 playoff seed. The Panthers posted a pair of close district wins over West, which last week swept 19-3A champion Troy in the area round.

The Academy-Maypearl winner advances to next week’s regional semifinal against the victor of the best-of-three series between No. 3 Orangefield (27-4) and No. 6 Nacogdoches Central Heights (28-4-1).

In 5A, Lake Belton earned its Region III quarterfinal berth on the strength of home wins over Elgin in Game 1 and Game 3 at Bronco Ballpark.

The Broncos of first-year coach Chris Peacock won the series opener 7-1 as senior right-hander and Temple College signee Mason Gerrard pitched a complete game. The Wildcats responded at home in Game 2, coming back to take a 5-4 victory and square the series.

Game 3 originally was scheduled for Saturday in Elgin, but overnight rain made the Wildcats’ field unplayable and the teams instead moved the finale to Lake Belton's artificial turf.

The game was scoreless through four innings, but the Broncos broke through in the top of the fifth. Their five-run outburst was keyed by big hits from Malaki McGehee, Tyler Junior College signee Ty Jackson and Brandon Bell.

Senior right-hander and Air Force commitment Connor Bartz pitched 6 1/3 effective innings before Matthew Stanford got the final two outs to secure Lake Belton’s 5-1 victory and first trip to the 5A regional quarterfinals. Junior righty Mason Law is another strong pitcher for the Broncos.

The Broncos now battle a top-notch opponent in 21-5A champion Magnolia West, which swept its first two playoff series against Killeen and Pflugerville by a combined score of 34-3. The Mustangs are 16-1 in their last 17 games.

The Lake Belton-Magnolia West winner advances to the Region III semifinals to play the winner of the series between No. 1-ranked Friendswood (27-4-2) and Mont Belvieu Barbers Hill (25-10-1).

After placing fourth in highly competitive 23-4A, Gatesville has benefited from that experience in the playoffs. The Hornets of third-year coach Chase Smith won their bi-district series against Marble Falls with an 8-3 road victory in Game 3, then swept area-round opponent Giddings with 11-0 and 4-2 wins.

Gatesville has an outstanding pitcher in junior left-hander Bralen Veazey, whose 125 strikeouts this year broke Johnny Clark’s single-season school record that stood for 35 years. Junior catcher Lawson Mooney broke another long-standing Hornets record, with the most stolen bases in a season.

Senior right-hander Grant Erwin pitched Gatesville’s series-clinching win against Giddings. Veazey, Banner Allman and Ben Mabry are among the Hornets’ leading top hitters.

Ace pitcher Veazey is expected to start on the mound in the one-game showdown with China Spring, which beat Gatesville 10-0 and 7-3 in district in early April.

The Cougars are coached by Cory Beckham, who guided West to multiple state championships and was Lake Belton’s coach for the Broncos’ first two playoff seasons in 2021 and 2022. China Spring, a 32-9 state semifinalist last year, is riding a 22-game winning streak.

The Gatesville-China Spring victor will advance to the Region III semifinal against the winner of the series between No. 8 Carthage (27-6) and No. 15 Bullard (24-8).

Like Gatesville, Salado was a battle-tested team coming out of 23-4A and that experience proved crucial for the Eagles in the first two playoff rounds. Coach Emery Atkisson’s squad needed three games to move past bi-district foe Burnet, although both wins were by 10-plus runs. Salado cruised past Caldwell in the area round, prevailing 5-0 and 7-1.

The Eagles feature an outstanding pitching tandem in senior right-hander Caden Strickland – a Blinn College signee – and junior lefty Logan Flores. Salado’s offense is fueled by players such as Strickland, Flores, Drew Bird, Owen Curtis, Lane Heath, Kase Maedgen and Will Messner.

Salado likely will need to be at the top of its game against a strong Taylor team that won the 22-4A championship with a 9-1 record. The Ducks are 15-1 in their last 16 games after they swept Robinson 1-0 and 5-3 in the area round. Taylor’s ace is junior left-hander Chris Perez, a University of Houston commitment who hurled a five-inning no-hitter against Gatesville in March.

The Salado-Taylor winner will advance to the Region III semifinals to play the winner of the series between No. 10 Lufkin Hudson (27-6-3) and No. 7 Longview Spring Hill (25-6-2).

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MAN WITH THE PLAN: Temple College 25th-year head baseball coach Craig McMurtry speaks to his team at practice Tuesday in preparation for the NJCAA Region V Tournament in Weatherford. The Leopards (35-17), who went 22-10 in NTJCAC play for second place behind sixth-ranked Weatherford, battle Odessa (34-21) in a first-round game scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Roger Williams Ballpark. The champion of the eight-team, double-elimination event will advance to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)





By GREG WILLE


The 2023 baseball season has been a successful one for Temple College, which is ready to compete in the NJCAA Region V Tournament after missing postseason play last year.

The Leopards have a 35-17 overall record and went 22-10 in Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference action, finishing as runner-up to runaway champion and sixth-ranked Weatherford. TC begins the double-elimination regional tournament Friday, battling Odessa (34-21) at 7 p.m. at Weatherford College’s Roger Williams Ballpark.

Examining the statistical report, it’s easy to see why the Temple team of 25th-year head coach Craig McMurtry has played such a stellar brand of all-around ball: depth, balance and versatility.

No fewer than 13 players have made key contributions on offense and defense. Sophomore first baseman Simon Larranaga leads the Leopards with 12 home runs, 88 total bases and a .693 slugging percentage while batting .354, and freshman third baseman and Texas A&M signee Cade Climie paces the club with a .369 batting average and 40 runs batted in.

Freshman center fielder Trent Rucker (.329) leads TC with 54 hits, 43 runs, three triples and 14 stolen bases. Sophomore right fielder Colby Christian has five homers and 32 RBI, sophomore left fielder Dawson French is hitting .339 with 12 steals and freshman second baseman Cole Tabor is batting .312 with 24 RBI.

Sophomore designated hitter Hogan Heller (23 RBI) paces Temple with 11 doubles and 29 walks, and freshman first baseman Lance Cantrell is hitting .305 with 19 RBI.

“I think our depth is better – not really depth as far as crazy numbers of players, but depth as far as through the lineup,” McMurtry said during the Leopards’ practice Tuesday evening. “You’ve got Rucker leading off, then Tabor has his moments, Climie’s had a really good year, Simon’s been good, Hogan’s been decent, French jumps in and Colby’s come on late.”

And although their offensive numbers are modest, sophomore shortstop Raithen Malone and the catching tandem of freshman Ty Marthiljohni and sophomore Bryan Williams (Temple High School) have played sharp, reliable defense.

From a pitching perspective, sophomore right-hander Luis Martinez-Gomez has been a workhorse for TC’s starting rotation, leading the Leopards in wins with a 7-3 record while working a team-high 56 2/3 innings.

Sophomore righty Clay Westbrook will miss the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury after going 6-3 with 51 strikeouts, but freshman righty and Georgia Tech transfer Christian Okerholm has helped picked up the slack, producing a 5-0 record and a team-best 2.16 earned-run average with 43 strikeouts and only 32 hits allowed in 50 innings.

Freshman righty Garrett Baumann has been outstanding with a 4-0 record, 2.17 ERA and a team-leading 59 strikeouts against 13 walks in 45 2/3 innings, while freshman lefty Tyler Cooper has used his sharp-breaking curveball to rack up eight saves, a 2.70 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings for a staggering figure of 14.6 punchouts per nine innings.

Temple must win at least four games during four or five days to beat out seven other teams for the regional championship and earn its fourth trip – and first since 2018 – to the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Along with the aforementioned pitchers, the Leopards likely will need positive contributions from talented-but-inconsistent lefties Dash Albus and Joel Burgess Jr. and freshman righty reliever Colin Huspen to succeed in the grueling format.

“I think there is the capability of having enough arms. Always the big question mark is, are they going to pitch to their potential in those games?” said McMurtry, the former major league pitcher who oversees Temple’s mound staff.

Host Weatherford (46-9) is the tournament favorite after going 29-3 in conference play to finish seven games ahead of TC. The Leopards went 1-3 against the stout Coyotes, who have the NTJCAC Hitter of the Year in Robin Villeneuve and the Pitcher of the Year in Ryne Rodriguez.

“I think Weatherford had eight first-team all-conference guys,” McMurtry said.

McLennan (38-18) is the NTJCAC’s No. 3 seed and the No. 4 is Cisco (35-21), which tied for fifth but replaced Ranger in the regional field after Ranger self-reported an NJCAA violation on player eligibility.

Ninth-ranked New Mexico JC (43-12) won the Western Junior College Athletic Conference championship by five games over Midland (41-13). No. 3 seed Odessa and No. 4 seed New Mexico Military Institute (38-18) also represent the WJCAC.

Temple's pitching staff will contend with Odessa’s prolific offense. The Wranglers feature Liam MacDonald (.418, 15 home runs, 77 RBI), Chase Diggins (.434, 34 RBI, 20 steals) and Camden Colman (.376, six homers, 56 RBI).

The Temple-Odessa winner will play the New Mexico-Cisco victor at 7 p.m. Saturday. The championship game is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, with a second title game to played at 1 p.m. Tuesday if necessary.

The Leopards last captured the Region V championship in 2010. They made it back to Grand Junction in 2018, taking third place in the regional before finalists McLennan and Cisco were controversially removed from the tournament because of an on-field altercation that resulted in numerous ejections and suspensions.

Two major factors in Temple’s success this season are Martinez-Gomez’s effective pitching and Larranaga’s impressive slugging. Both players have been pleasant surprises in their own ways.

The 6-foot-2, 175-pound Martinez-Gomez is from Pomona, California in the greater Los Angeles area and pitched as a freshman last year at nearby San Bernardino Valley College, compiling 69 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings. However, he wanted a fresh scene and a new challenge.

“I told one of my old coaches (Aaron Weintraub) at my junior college that I wanted to leave and go find a different school, a different environment,” Martinez-Gomez said. “He started reaching out to schools for me and reached out here and had a couple phone calls with (TC assistant coach Nathan) Train.”

Martinez-Gomez’s season highlight was his performance against rival and previous nemesis McLennan on April 8 in Waco. He pitched a four-hit shutout with six strikeouts as the Leopards won 3-0 to clinch a series victory over the Highlanders.

Martinez-Gomez said “my phone got blown up” by recruiters from four-year programs after that McLennan game. He’s considering NCAA Division II power Angelo State along with receiving interest from several Division I teams.

“This year one of the biggest changes I’ve had was just to be in the (strike) zone more. I kind of threw away having a lot of Ks per nine and just tried to be efficient,” said Martinez-Gomez, who’s pitched three complete games and limited batters to 42 hits in 56 2/3 innings. “Strikeouts are cool and all, but it doesn’t help if you’re out of the game by the fifth.

“I always try to expect great things for myself. I feel like that’s a good way to set goals,” he added. “I feel like I’ve really improved from last year, and that was the main goal. Being here in Texas, it’s been fun and I’ve met a lot of great guys.”

McMurtry said Martinez-Gomez is Temple’s likely starting pitcher in the regional opener against Odessa. He’s also one of the Leopards’ three second-team selections on the NTJCAC’s all-conference squad, joining powerful third baseman Climie and dominant reliever Baumann.

Martinez-Gomez’s performance and consistency have impressed McMurtry, who’s relied on the slender Californian to pitch deep into the first game of TC’s second conference doubleheader each week.

“We really didn’t know what we were going to get with Luis coming in from California and just getting some word-of-mouth stuff on him from somebody who saw him last year and saying, ‘Hey, this kid’s got a good arm and good stuff and he’d be a good pickup for you,’” McMurtry said. “I don’t want to say we were surprised; I think we were just pleased he came.

“His fastball’s in the upper 80s and low 90s, and sometimes 93 or 94. The big thing is he’s got some life to his pitches. He’s got movement, he’s got a great breaking ball that he commands and he goes out there and competes. That’s the biggest thing you want out of your guys, that they don’t just quit when things get tough.”

Martinez-Gomez said he’s enjoyed improving his craft under the tutelage of McMurtry, the Troy graduate who pitched eight major league seasons and in 1983 was second in voting for the National League Rookie of the Year award.

“I feel like Coach McMurtry just keeps it real. He just gives it to you straight,” Martinez-Gomez said. “He doesn’t really baby you. He tells you how it is. I really appreciate his honesty. He’s been a great guy for me.”

As for imposing first baseman Larranaga, his contributions last year as a TC freshman were limited. In 29 games and 62 at-bats, he hit .210 with two home runs and 13 RBI.

The 6-4, 215-pound Larranaga – called “Big Cat” by his teammates, perhaps as a nod to former major league slugger Andres Galarraga – entered the offseason knowing he was capable of greater production and used that as motivation to improve his skills.

Larranaga's results support his renewed commitment. Along with a .354 average and team-leading 12 homers, he’s driven in 38 runs, scored 36, drawn 26 walks, stolen six bases and posted a .472 on-base percentage.

“I work hard every single day as much as I can, and I work on the little things,” he said. “I think the difference from last year to this year is definitely a bigger mental side, maturity-wise. I just feel more confidence, and the team has helped me stay more confident in myself, too.”

Larranaga has homered twice in a game three times this season, including conference matchups with Hill and North Central Texas. He blasted a combined four homers in Temple’s final two NTJCAC series, helping him attain something he set his sights on before the season.

“At the beginning of the year I had a notecard and I put my goals on it. I actually did reach all my goals,” Larranaga said. “I wanted to have 12 home runs this year, and I got to it. Hopefully I can get a few more.”

Partially because left-handed hitter Cantrell often starts at first base against right-handed pitchers, Larranaga has only the fifth-most at-bats in TC’s lineup. However, he's still four homers ahead of Climie’s eight and has tallied 45 hits, trailing only Rucker and Climie.

According to Larranaga, sacrificing a bit of playing time and a few at-bats is part of what has made the Leopards’ team-centered approach work well.

“I feel like we always play together, and if anyone’s down at all, there’s always someone picking them up, always picking up the next guy,” said Larranaga, who led Mont Belvieu Barbers Hill to the Class 5A state championship in 2021 along with longtime teammate Malone, Temple’s slick-fielding shortstop who’s also contributed at the plate by driving in 20 runs. “We’re always happy for each other, no matter who’s doing well and performing for the team. There’s really good chemistry.”

Temple’s 2021 team won 39 games and made a run in the regional tournament but was eliminated by talent-laden McLennan, the eventual JUCO World Series champion.

With his Leopards ready to take another shot at returning to the junior college baseball mecca that is Grand Junction, McMurtry believes that their mixture of competitiveness and cohesiveness gives them a realistic opportunity to contend for the Region V crown.

“We’ve got some good personalities that mesh pretty good. The guys get along. They get on each other but in a fun way, and they take it the right way,” said the 63-year-old McMurtry, who’s completing a quarter-century as the Leopards’ head coach and his 10th year as TC’s athletic director. “They’ve been competitive as far as their attitude and the way they handle themselves and go about their business.

“They still have fun at practice – sometimes too much fun as far as I’m concerned. But they make it fun and they push each other. It has been a fun year and a good year. Coach (Frank) Kellner and Coach Train have enjoyed the guys and they recruited most of them, so they did a good job of getting guys in here who get along and work together.”

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