ROUND 3 RUMBLES: Academy, Lake Belton, Salado, Gatesville face tough tests in regional quarterfinals
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).