PIVOTAL SHOWDOWN: No. 16 TC must beat rival McLennan in final series to capture NTJCAC championship
BIG-GAME ASSIGNMENT: Temple College pitcher Nathan Medrano, shown delivering against Hill last week, will make his 14th start this season when the 16th-ranked Leopards (37-10, 20-8) battle first-place McLennan (33-16, 21-7) at noon Thursday in the first game of a Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference doubleheader at Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. Medrano, a Houston signee, is 8-3 with a 2.49 earned-run average and 74 strikeouts in 65 innings. His likely counterpart is MCC freshman righty Logan Henderson, a Texas A&M commitment who pitched a perfect game against North Central Texas last Friday. Coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards must win their four-game series against the Highlanders to take the NTJCAC championship. Temple will host McLennan on Saturday in a noon doubleheader at Danny Scott Sports Complex. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
Temple College has put together the best season of any baseball team in the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference. The Leopards own a 37-10 overall record that includes a staggering 22-1 home mark, are ranked No. 16 in the NJCAA Division I poll and average 8.2 runs per game.
But if Temple is going to win the NTJCAC championship, it has to do some serious work this week.
The second-place Leopards trail first-place McLennan Community College by one game entering the rivals' four-game series, a high-stakes showdown that will conclude conference competition.
The Leopards travel to Waco's Bosque River Ballpark for a doubleheader at noon Thursday, then on Saturday the Highlanders will visit Temple's Danny Scott Sports Complex – where TC is 14-0 in conference games this season – for a noon doubleheader.
For Temple, the scenario is straightforward. If the Leopards win the series against McLennan, they'll capture the conference championship and earn the right to host a four-team Region V tournament the following week. If TC splits the series or loses it, it will drop to the NTJCAC's second or third seed and have to hit the road for postseason play.
“Seems pretty simple to me, and I'm a pretty simple guy. We need to win at least three of four to win the conference,” longtime Temple head coach Craig McMurtry said Tuesday. “If someone had told me at the start of the season that we'd go into the last week needing to win three of four to win conference, I'd take that.
“MCC's a good team, so we're going to have to play really good. They can swing it. It'll be challenging to win three of four.”
Temple hasn't lost an NTJCAC series and has led the conference standings for much of the season, and the Leopards went 3-1 in each of their last two series, against Ranger and Hill. However, McLennan (33-16) has ripped off consecutive four-game sweeps against last-place Vernon and eighth-place North Central Texas to overtake TC for the top spot.
With coach Mitch Thompson's Highlanders sitting at 21-7 in conference and the Leopards at 20-8 entering their head-to-head duel, they cannot tie each other for the championship. A four-game split would maintain MCC's one-game margin, while a 3-1 series victory would give TC a two-game swing and the league title by one game.
McMurtry lamented the fact that Temple three times this season has won the first three games of a conference series but lost the final game on the road each time. The Leopards were in position to grab a key sweep against Hill until a 14-4 loss in Sunday's finale in Hillsboro.
“We've had opportunities to sweep some series but had some games that got away from us. We had that conversation after the loss at Hill,” McMurtry said. “The message was that even though it was disappointing to not sweep that series, we've been trying to win three out of four all year, and we've put ourselves in a great position. Now we'll try to go win a game or two at MCC.”
The projected matchup of starting pitchers in Thursday's seven-inning series opener at McLennan is an intriguing one. The Leopards plan to go with sophomore right-hander Nathan Medrano, a University of Houston signee who's 8-3 with a 2.49 earned-run average and 74 strikeouts in 65 innings. The Highlanders' likely starter is freshman righty Logan Henderson, a Texas A&M commitment who's 5-2 with a 1.73 ERA and 106 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.
Henderson pitched a seven-inning perfect game with 12 strikeouts in McLennan's 4-0 win at North Central Texas last Friday.
“Henderson has great numbers and he's allowed minimal hits,” said McMurtry, whose pitching helped McLennan advance to the Junior College World Series in 1980. “We've got to find a way to shorten our swings and put the ball in play. We hope Medrano can match him as far as minimizing their guys on offense.”
The projected matchup of starting pitchers for Thursday's nine-inning second game is Temple freshman righty Kolby Wilson (3-0, 5.85 ERA) against McLennan second-year freshman lefty Jack Hattrup (7-2, 3.19 ERA, 66 strikeouts in 42 1/3 innings). TC relievers such as lefties Mason Brandenberger and Diego Fernandez and righties Davis Pratt and Brian Shadrick (Belton) could play large roles in Game 2.
Back at home Saturday, the Leopards plan to use two second-year freshmen as their starting pitchers: Texas-San Antonio-committed right-hander Ulises Quiroga (9-1, 2.72 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 53 innings) and left-hander Dylan Blomquist (4-2, 4.09 ERA, 53 strikeouts in 44 innings), a former Belton standout. McLennan's top options for starting pitchers Saturday include freshmen Will Carsten (7-1, 3.61 ERA, 61 strikeouts) and Brady Rose (6-1, 2.42 ERA, 61 strikeouts).
From an offensive standpoint, the Temple-McLennan matchup offers quite a contrast in styles. The Leopards have hit only 32 home runs but have racked up 123 stolen bases, while the Highlanders have slugged 68 homers but stolen just 41 bases.
TC has gotten nine homers from second-year freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson and five homers from second-year freshman designated hitter/left fielder Clark Henry, but no other Leopard has more than three homers. Meanwhile, four McLennan players have connected for 10-plus homers, paced by 15 apiece from Auburn transfer Mason Greer – son of former Texas Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer – and Garrett Martin. Dominic Tamez has 11 homers and Miguel Santos has 10.
Tennessee signee Stephenson leads Temple with 45 runs batted in, freshman third baseman Ty Tilson has 38 RBI and Henry has 37, while the aforementioned four MCC hitters have at least 45 RBI each: Martin with 55, Tamez with 52, Green with 50 and Santos with 45. TC freshman second baseman Travis Chestnut has stolen 30 bases and Stephenson has 27, whereas no Highlander has recorded more than six steals.
“They have guys who can hit the ball out of the park,” McMurtry said about McLennan. “Our offense, we'll hit a few homers but we hit the ball up the middle, hit behind runners, move them over and get them in. MCC does a bit of both. They have guys with double-digit homers who like to get it up in the air, so we'll have to make them hit our pitches. Keeping the ball down is always key.”
The NTJCAC champion will host a four-team, double-elimination Region V tournament from May 14-17 that also will include its conference's No. 3 seed and two teams from the Western Junior College Athletic Conference: No. 2 seed Midland (28-14) and No. 4 seed Odessa (18-24).
WJCAC champion Howard (37-11), ranked 14th in the country, simultaneously will host the other four-team Region V tournament, which is in Big Spring and also will include WJCAC No. 3 seed Clarendon (28-18) and the NTJCAC's second and fourth seeds.
Fourth-place teams Cisco and Hill (16-12 in league play) and sixth-place Grayson (14-14) are contending this week for the NTJCAC's fourth and final postseason berth. Cisco and Hill battle each other in a four-game series, while Grayson plays seventh-place Ranger.
If Temple doesn't win its series against McLennan to take the conference championship, the Leopards could slide to the NTJCAC's No. 3 seed. Third-place Weatherford is 18-10 in league play and trails TC by two games, and the Coyotes finish with a four-game series against eighth-place North Central Texas.
Temple and Weatherford split their conference-opening series in March, and in the case of a second-place deadlock between TC and Weatherford, the Coyotes would have the tiebreaker advantage over the Leopards because Weatherford went 3-1 against McLennan.
Entering Thursday, the Leopards don't know whether their regional tournament action will be played in Temple, Waco or Big Spring. But wherever TC ends up going, its goal is to survive its four-team regional tournament and advance to the following week's Region V championship series, a best-of-three affair that will propel the winner to an automatic berth in the Junior College World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
McMurtry has seen enough from his Leopards this season to have confidence that they're primed to play their best baseball in this week's vital rivalry clash with McLennan.
“They've been a really competitive group all year. Every game, even when we haven't won, there's no give-up in them,” said McMurtry, who guided Temple to JUCO World Series appearances in 2006, 2010 and 2018. “They're a good group of guys and they know what they want to do. They want to win conference, and I know that they're going to compete.”