HIT THE RESET BUTTON: TC shakes off late-season skid, starts Region V tournament vs. Midland in Waco
SAME LOCATION, DIFFERENT RESULT?: Last Thursday, Temple College sophomore Nathan Medrano pitched a four-hit complete game in a 2-0 loss to rival McLennan in Waco. At 2 p.m. Friday, Houston signee Medrano (8-4) gets another opportunity at Bosque River Ballpark when he starts for coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards (37-14) against Midland (28-14) in a first-round NJCAA Region V tournament game. The Leopards-Chaparrals winner will advance to Saturday's 2 p.m. game against the winner of Friday's 10 a.m. game between 15th-ranked McLennan – which swept TC last week and won the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference championship – and Clarendon. (File photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
In an ideal situation, the Temple College baseball team would be preparing to host a four-team NJCAA Region V tournament at Danny Scott Sports Complex beginning Friday.
Throughout much of the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference season, the Leopards were in prime position to win the league championship and host a double-elimination regional.
What wasn't ideal for TC, however, was its performance against rival McLennan in the teams' crucial four-game series last week to conclude the regular season.
Coach Craig McMurtry's Leopards needed to win at least three games against the first-place Highlanders to overtake them for the outright NTJCAC crown, but Temple's title hopes evaporated last Thursday in Waco when McLennan swept the doubleheader 2-0 and 13-9 to clinch the conference championship.
MCC (25-7 in conference) then defeated host TC 4-2 and 5-2 on Saturday to complete the series sweep, with the Leopards (20-12) dropping to the conference's No. 3 seed after Weatherford (22-10) won its final nine league games to surge past Temple and seize second place.
Instead of dwelling on his team's five consecutive losses to end NTJCAC play, McMurtry has chosen to play up the positives as the Leopards (37-14) get ready to battle Midland (28-14) – the No. 2 from the Western Junior College Athletic Conference – at 2 p.m. Friday at McLennan's Bosque River Ballpark in Waco. It's a rematch of a late February series in which the host Leopards went 2-1.
“I think one way you can look at it is that we faltered down the stretch, but I think we played really well for the first three-quarters of the season and that allowed us to get in position to finish in third. That's the way I look at it,” said McMurtry, whose club was ranked as high as No. 12 in NJCAA Division I before falling out of the poll following the McLennan series. “Going into this regional, it's a new season and everybody's 0-0 starting the playoffs. It's a great opportunity.”
Friday's opening game of the four-team regional pits No. 15-ranked McLennan (37-16) – led by NTJCAC Pitcher of the Year Logan Henderson – against WJCAC No. 4 seed Clarendon (30-20) at 10 a.m., followed by Temple-Midland at 2 p.m. The two winners will clash at 2 p.m. Saturday at MCC, preceded by the elimination game at 10 a.m.
Another elimination game will be played Sunday at 10 a.m., followed by the championship game at 2 p.m. If the undefeated team loses that game, a second title game will become necessary and will start at 1 p.m. Monday.
The winner of the Waco regional will advance to next weekend's Super Regional against the winner of the four-team Region V tournament in Big Spring, hosted by WJCAC champion Howard (37-11). On Friday, the No. 10-ranked Hawks play NTJCAC No. 4 seed Cisco (40-14) and No. 18 Weatherford (36-18) plays WJCAC No. 3 seed Odessa (21-24).
In an interesting twist, if Temple had finished as the NTJCAC's No. 2 seed, the Leopards would have needed to travel approximately 4½ hours to play their regional tournament games in Big Spring. As the No. 3 seed, TC will get to sleep in its own beds, make the significantly easier 50-minute drive to McLennan and play in a much more familiar ballpark.
The best-of-three Super Regional series will be played May 21-23 at the home ballpark of the higher-seeded team. If both Region V finalists have the same conference seed, the WJCAC representative will serve as the host squad. The Region V champion earns an automatic berth to compete in the Junior College World Series, May 29-June 6 in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Temple made JUCO World Series appearances in 2006, 2010 and 2018, while McLennan's most recent trips to Grand Junction came in 2015 and 2017.
Because one of their primary goals was to capture the conference championship, McMurtry and the Leopards certainly were frustrated and disappointed by how they performed in their important showdown with McLennan, which has become a perennial power in recent seasons with coach Mitch Thompson. But with league play now in the past, Temple can reset its focus on striving to play its best baseball and extend its stellar season beyond this weekend.
“I think most of it was trying too hard,” McMurtry said about the cause of TC's struggles vs. MCC. “It's baseball. You've got to have a short-term memory and make some mental adjustments. We've had a good week of practice – lots of fielding stuff with Coach (Frank) Kellner and Coach (Nathan) Train, and lots of batting practice. We've got to turn the page and reset. Hopefully we can go up there and win three games in a row.”
McMurtry said Temple plans to go with sophomore right-hander Nathan Medrano (8-4, 2.54 earned-run average, 81 strikeouts in 71 innings) as its starting pitcher against Midland. The Houston signee took the loss in Midland's 6-5 victory at TC on Feb. 26, which was the Leopards' only setback in their first 23 home games before McLennan swept last Saturday's doubleheader.
Medrano pitched 4 2/3 innings, allowed nine hits and five runs (two earned) and had nine strikeouts against the Chaparrals, one day before Temple grabbed 8-1 and 7-6 victories to win the series.
“We're going to throw Medrano. He's our No. 1 guy in the rotation,” said McMurtry, who got a four-hit complete game from second-team all-conference selection Medrano in last Thursday's 2-0 loss against Henderson and McLennan. “He pitched against Midland, but that was a long time ago and guys have changed a bit since then.”
Leopards second-year freshman right-hander Ulises Quiroga (9-1, 2.72 ERA, 74 strikeouts, 36 hits allowed in 53 innings) did not make his customary weekend start in the series against McLennan. McMurtry said Quiroga, a Texas-San Antonio signee, is ready to start Temple's second game at the regional tournament. Second-year freshman lefty and Belton graduate Dylan Blomquist (4-3, 3.53 ERA, 57 strikeouts in 51 innings) is the probable starting pitcher if the Leopards play a third game this weekend.
McMurtry said TC expects to face Midland sophomore right-hander Bo Blessie (6-2, 5.04 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings) on the mound Friday. The Texas Tech commitment earned the win in the Chaps' series opener at Temple, pitching six innings, allowing four hits, three runs (two earned) and striking out seven.
Midland bats .351 as a team and has 43 home runs, paced by freshman outfielder Caleb Huertz's eight homers and 43 runs batted in. Second-year freshman catcher Jared Gibson is hitting .412 with six homers and 36 RBI.
Temple second-year freshman shortstop Seth Stephenson was voted Hitter of the Year in the NTJCAC. The speedy Tennessee signee paces the Leopards with 72 hits, a .404 batting average, a .719 slugging percentage, nine homers, 13 doubles, eight triples, 45 RBI and 50 runs in 47 games. Stephenson, a prospect for July's Major League Baseball draft, ranks second on TC's club with 28 stolen bases.
Temple second-year freshman Clark Henry was a first-team All-NTJCAC selection at designated hitter. The Angelina transfer produced a .384 batting average with five homers and 37 RBI.
McMurtry said he's hopeful that freshman standouts such as third baseman Ty Tilson (.322, 40 RBI) and center fielder Joseph Redfield (.339, 32 RBI, 13 steals) will bounce back in the regional tournament after enduring some struggles against McLennan.
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