- Greg Wille
DENIED: Courtney outduels Gerrard 1-0 as Hudson Round 3 sweep ends Lake Belton's strong first season
OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCE: Lake Belton sophomore right-hander Mason Gerrard delivers a pitch to Lufkin Hudson batter Blake Slaga during the seventh inning of the host Broncos' 1-0 loss to the Hornets in Game 2 of a Class 4A Region III quarterfinal series Friday evening at Bronco Park in Temple. Gerrard (7-2) allowed only three hits, recorded seven strikeouts and issued no walks in a complete game, but Lake Belton was shut out by Hudson junior righty Carson Courtney (5-2) on three hits, one by Gerrard. The series sweep concluded a strong season by coach Cory Beckham's first-year Broncos program, which won the District 19-4A championship and two playoff rounds and finished 23-11-1. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
As longtime Lufkin Hudson baseball coach Glen Kimble prepared his team to play Lake Belton's first-year program in a Class 4A Region III quarterfinal series, he expected that his Hornets might be able to take advantage of the fact that all of the Broncos' players are sophomores or freshmen.
However, as the teams battled in a pair of close, low-scoring games Wednesday evening in Lufkin and early Friday evening at Lake Belton's warm, breezy Bronco Park, that's not actually what Hudson's 21st-year skipper saw.
“I thought there would be some things we could exploit with them being freshmen and sophomores only, but man, their pitchers did such a good job and they kept us off the bases where we couldn't do anything,” Kimble said. “And when we did get on, they were slide-stepping and keeping us close. So there was no sign at all of them being a young team. Couldn't see it at all.”
That said, Hudson's maturity and experience showed up when the Hornets needed those things the most.
Junior right-hander Carson Courtney escaped whatever trouble he got into as he pitched a three-hitter, and senior Hank Warren hit a run-scoring double on an 0-2 count in the fourth inning for Hudson's only run against Lake Belton ace sophomore righty Mason Gerrard as the Hornets seized a fast-moving 1-0 win, sweeping the best-of-three third-round series and ending the Broncos' stellar inaugural season.
“It was two evenly matched teams and the pitchers threw great on both sides. We just happened to get one more timely hit than they did,” Kimble said after Hudson advanced to the playoffs' fourth round for the first time the Hornets made three consecutive fourth-round trips from 2005-07.
District 17-4A runner-up Hudson (27-10) moved into next week's Region III semifinals against No. 20-ranked Bellville (26-8-1), which beat Livingston 6-5 and 4-2 to sweep that third-round series.
Head coach Cory Beckham and Lake Belton got a sharp complete game from freshman lefty pitcher Logan Flores in Wednesday's series opener at Hudson, but Warren was a just a tad better on the mound as the Hornets allowed a seventh-inning run before throwing out a runner at home plate and holding on for a 2-1 win over the Broncos.
The series shifted to Lake Belton on Friday for a 5 p.m. start at sold-out Bronco Park, where dozens of spectators watched from grassy areas beyond the outfield fence.
The Broncos needed to win Game 2 to force a winner-take-all third game 30 minutes later. They got an outstanding pitching performance from Gerrard – a three-hitter with seven strikeouts and no walks – and error-free defense behind him, but a crucial hit or two proved elusive as Hudson held firm and stopped Lake Belton's debut season with a 23-11-1 record.
“Very evenly matched. When you've got close games like that, it comes down to a swing or two or a play or two,” said Beckham, who coached West to 3A state championships in 2015 and 2016. “Today, Hank Warren got the hit of the game. Crazy enough, one run was enough. This is the first time we've been shut out all year. We usually hit the ball pretty well, but their pitcher was good. We missed one spot, one location on one pitch to a great hitter, and he made us pay.
“Two one-run games against one of the top programs in the state, that kind of shows you where we're at. Obviously we're pretty good at pitching and defense, but the hitting wasn't there in this one,” Beckham added. “I've been trying to get the guys ready, because in the playoffs you're going to face high-level pitching, guys who can change speeds and locate in and out, up and down. But at times, it did look like we were a little overmatched up there. It made it look like we were guessing at times. I try to teach them to be reactionary hitters and not to guess, but today it sure did look like we were guessing.”
Striving to extend its successful first season at least one more game, Lake Belton sent Gerrard to the mound for the Broncos' first playoff game on their home field. Early on, the athletic, shaggy-haired sophomore had more trouble keeping his cap from flying off his head than he did retiring Hudson's batters. Gerrard (7-2) retired the first nine Hornets, including five outs through the air and two strikeouts.
“Mason was dominating with the fastball, and about the time it looked like (Hudson) might time it up, here comes the breaking ball or the changeup,” Beckham said. “That was one of his best performances, and he's done a great job all year. His earned-run average is minuscule and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is out of this world.”
Meanwhile, the 6-foot-4, 175-pound Courtney (5-2) also took advantage of mistake-free defense behind him as he faced one batter above the minimum through three innings. Broncos sophomore leadoff batter Connor Bartz ripped a line drive in the bottom of the first, but third baseman Tyler Dickerson made a diving, backhanded catch to take away a probable double.
“That could have changed the game,” Beckham said. “Every play matters in a one-run game.”
LAYING IT DOWN: Lake Belton sophomore right fielder Jaydon Leza bunts a pitch by Lufkin Hudson junior Carson Courtney down the third base line for a single during the third inning of the Broncos' 1-0 loss to the visiting Hornets in Game 2 of a Class 4A Region III quarterfinal series Friday evening at Bronco Park in Temple. Lake Belton's only other hits against Courtney (5-2) were Mason Gerrard's first-inning single and Ty Jackson's sixth-inning double. Hudson (27-10), which edged Lake Belton 2-1 on Wednesday in Lufkin, swept the third-round series and advanced to battle Bellville in next week's regional semifinals. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
Gerrard flared a one-out single to left field in the first, but Ty Jackson grounded into a double play. Jaydon Leza bunted for a two-out single in the third before Courtney got Bartz to fly out to left.
“(Courtney) was working both sides of the plate, throwing strikes, hitting (the strike zone) with his breaking ball and mixing in his changeup some and working quick so he keeps the defense ready to play,” Kimble said. “You could see that the tempo out of both pitchers today was quick. We normally hit better, but their guy (Gerrard) just kept us off-balance.”
After the teams needed only 32 minutes to complete the first three innings, nearly all of the game's drama occurred during the fourth.
Hudson leadoff batter Collin Ross ripped a single over the glove of leaping shortstop Bartz. Gerrard then threw two strikes to put Warren down in the count, but Gerrard missed his spot on the 0-2 pitch and the Northeast Texas Community College signee drove it down the line in left for a double that brought Ross around for what proved to be the game's lone run.
“He's our best everything – best pitcher, best hitter, best fielder, best base runner,” Kimble said about the 6-foot, 190-pound Warren.
Gerrard did well to prevent further damage in the fourth. Courtney's comebacker to Gerrard resulted in Warren being tagged out in a well-executed rundown between second and third, then the Lake Belton pitcher notched a strikeout and a groundout.
The Broncos' offense then put together its best scoring bid of the game. Courtney walked Gerrard to begin Lake Belton's fourth and then hit Jackson with a pitch. Beckham isn't against using the sacrifice bunt, and with the Broncos trailing by one run against a difficult-to-crack pitcher, their coach certainly could have decided to call for it.
However, with freshman designated hitter Davin “Peanut” Brazzle coming to the plate, Beckham had no plans to give up an out just to advance each runner 90 feet.
“We had first and second, no outs and it looks like a bunting situation. We had Peanut Brazzle up to bat and he's one of the top hitters on our team,” Beckham explained. “He's hitting like .375 and he's got zero bunts all year. He's not a great bunter, but he's a great hitter. So why force him into something he's not comfortable doing?”
Brazzle got down in the count and flew out to center, too shallow for the runners to tag up, but Beckham stood by his decision and said he'd choose to handle it the same way again.
“We've got plenty of guys who can bunt, and (Hudson) thought we were bunting. But not with that guy. He's a good hitter and that pitcher just got him out. It's part of the game,” Beckham said. “Peanut's a great hitter and he's going to come through for us. He's come through for us all year in situations like that. And in the future, we're going to have that same situation, and you know what? I'm not going to bunt next time, either. And he's going to hit the ball and we're going to win the game.”
Freshman center fielder Brandon Bell followed with a sharp grounder to the left side that shortstop Warren fielded in the hole before throwing to third to force out Gerrard. Courtney then hit Connor Crews with a pitch to load the bases with two outs, but Courtney struck out Kadyn Martinez looking with an inside-corner fastball to strand three runners.
“That one inning when they gave us two hit by pitches and a walk, that was our chance,” Beckham said. “We just didn't get a hit behind it.”
Gerrard performed admirably in the final three innings, racking up four strikeouts and allowing only one hit, Ashton Grissom's leadoff single in the sixth before Gerrard struck out Warren with a fastball and retired Courtney on a sliding catch by right fielder Leza.
Lake Belton's only legitimate scoring threat during the final three innings came in the sixth, when burly third baseman Jackson slugged a one-out double to the left-center gap. But Jackson had to hold at second when Brazzle grounded out to third, and Courtney retired Bell on a popup to second.
Gerrard worked a spotless seventh with two groundouts wrapped around his seventh strikeout, setting up Lake Belton's final opportunity to keep its season alive.
Alas, Hudson's lanky righty didn't give the Broncos and their supporters much cause for optimism in the seventh. Courtney retired Crews and Martinez on routine flyouts, then struck out pinch hitter Mason Trovinger swinging with a big-breaking curveball to seal the Hornets' sweep and end Lake Belton's first season.
“The pitching was there. You give up three runs in a series, you should win,” said Beckham, whose Broncos swept series against Manor New Tech and Jasper in the first two rounds. “We just didn't get the bats going and we didn't get the runners on base. It looked like their pitcher maybe was going to get tired in the fourth inning, but he was as clean as could be in the last three innings.”
Because this is the first year of the University Interscholastic League's two-year alignment cycle, Hudson's coach knows that his well-established program (20 consecutive playoff berths) might run into the Broncos again next year in postseason competition. And after having to stave off Lake Belton in two one-run duels to advance, Kimble certainly isn't in a hurry to see the up-and-coming Broncos across the field again.
“Those guys, they're going to be very good. They've got a class program, their coach is doing a great job and they're just going up,” Kimble, whose school does not play football, said about Lake Belton. “To be in this position now, who knows what they're going to be next year? They're going to be something to deal with.”
Beckham feels the same way about his Broncos, who project to return every player next season and will have three classes involved instead of just two. And if Lake Belton runs into Hudson again in Year 2, the Broncos' experience and growth – both physically and mentally – could make all the difference.
“We're going to try to build our team. Obviously we've got the same pitchers next year, so we've just got to get better on offense,” Beckham said. “And we've been good (offensively) all year. We averaged eight runs a game, then we scored one run in two games (against Hudson). It happens.
“I always preach, 'Let's get bigger, faster, stronger. It makes it easier.' And then you've got to know the things you need to improve on. We can look at that series right there and go, 'We need to hit off-speed (pitches) better and we need to be able to drive the ball to the opposite field better.' If we do that, we're still playing.”
And after Lake Belton won 23 games, a district championship and two playoff rounds in its first season of existence, Beckham believes that the Broncos' program has unlimited potential.
“Man, the future is so bright. We turned some heads, I promise you,” Beckham said. “We were on no one's radar. 'Who's Lake Belton? What is that place?' And then all of a sudden, they start looking at us and going, 'Man, that team's pretty good.' We won a district championship, and no one can take that away. That's in the history books.
“To me, the sky's the limit. We've got a goal in mind next year, and that's a state championship. If you're not shooting for that, then what are we doing out here?”
HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL PLAYOFFS
CLASS 4A REGION III QUARTERFINALS
Lufkin Hudson 1, Lake Belton 0
Hudson 000 100 0 – 1 3 0
L. Belton 000 000 0 – 0 3 0
Hudson: Carson Courtney and Remington Roff. Lake Belton: Mason Gerrard and Kadyn Martinez. W – Courtney (5-2). L – Gerrard (7-2). 2B – H: Hank Warren; LB: Ty Jackson.
Highlights – H: Courtney six strikeouts, one walk, two hit batters in complete game; Warren 1-for-3, run-scoring double in fourth inning; Collin Ross 1-for-2, sacrifice bunt, run; Ashton Grissom 1-for-2; LB: Gerrard seven strikeouts, no walks in complete game, 1-for-2, walk; Ty Jackson 1-for-2, hit by pitch; Jaydon Leza 1-for-2.
Records – Hudson 27-10; Lake Belton 23-11-1.
Notes – Hudson sweeps Class 4A Region III quarterfinal best-of-three series 2-0 and advances to regional semifinals next week vs. No. 20-ranked Bellville (26-8-1); District 19-4A champion Lake Belton reached third round of playoffs in inaugural season (all players were sophomores or freshmen).
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