Depth perception

Baseball enters district play with deep roster, sky-high expectations

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Dylan McGinnis

After adjusting his gloves, Kasen Wells steps into the batter’s box. Wells, a junior, leads the team in OPS and stolen bases.

Jackson Posey, Sports Director

It’s a season like no other – or is it?

Coronavirus shutdowns ended the 2020 baseball season abruptly during Spring Break, cutting off the 11-3 Rangers just days before district play began. 

Fast-forward to this season, and the team sits in an eerily similar position: it’s Spring Break, the Rangers boast an 11-3 record and district play is scheduled to begin on Tuesday. Not to mention, new COVID-19 mask guidelines have left many wary of potential outbreaks across the state.

But if the team can overcome external health issues and play a full season, they’re confident they can go all the way.

“I love our team this year,” pitcher Brandon Taylor said. “I believe we’re strong all around, from our lineup [to] our pitching rotation. I genuinely believe that when we play to our best abilities, we can’t be beat. With that being said, I honestly believe that we have a chance to win the whole thing (state tournament) in Round Rock.”

The Rangers have outscored opponents 97-26 this season, thanks in large part to a roster flush with young talent. All five starting pitchers have ERAs of 3.00 or lower, and the four hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title have an average OPS of .946. That’s a great start to building a team, but the rest of the roster can hold their own too.

“We probably have more depth this year, in a year that you’re going to need depth, than we’ve had here in a long time,” said head coach Chad Koehl. “The depth that we have is going to be fun. There’s going to be a lot of just competition among each other, but more than that, … that competition breeds success as a team.”

It all starts on the mound, where Taylor (0.00 ERA, 9.6 K/7, 0.563 WHIP) and Tim Arguello (0.96 ERA, 10.5 K/7, 0.955 WHIP) front a loaded rotation. Dylan Domel (2.10 ERA, 0.840 WHIP) leads the team in innings pitched, thanks to two complete games in three starts, and Cameron Hodges (1.85 ERA) and Christian Keller (10 K/7) have held their own, both starting and in relief.

Arguello, a Wichita State commit, has impressed since transferring from San Antonio Christian over the summer.

“Tim without a doubt brings more confidence to our team,” Taylor said. “His success these past few games has been huge to our success as a whole. On the mound, in the field, and at the plate he’s been a great addition to our team.”

In the ‘pen, sophomore Jackson Elizondo (7.2 IP, 0.00 ERA, 0.913 WHIP) has impressed across five outings, pitching the team out of multiple bases-loaded jams. Hodges, Keller and Greyson Havens (5.1 IP, 1.31 ERA) will likely garner relief appearances as well.

Meanwhile, the team boasts several stars at the plate, including centerfielder Kasen Wells (slashing .382/.588/.676 with 9 SB) and outfielder/designated hitter Garrett Brooks, who’s working his way back from a broken leg sustained in a football game this past fall. Wells and Brooks are committed to Texas A&M and UTSA, respectively.

In his first year as a starter, sophomore catcher Ethan Gonzalez is slashing .419/.550/.484 in 40 plate appearances. His prowess behind the plate was never in question, but if he can pair his defense with consistent production on offense, he could be special.

“[Gonzalez] has the ability to be one of the best catchers we’ve ever had here,” Koehl said.

That’s high praise, especially considering the team’s history at the position: recent catchers Chandler Cole and CJ Horn are currently playing collegiate ball, and former major leaguer Jason LaRue’s number resides on the left field wall. But Koehl has faith that the Texas Tech commit can carve his own legacy.

Arguello (.303/.409/.455), Hodges (.281/.368/.500), third baseman John Garza (.286/.512/.429) and longtime shortstop Ryan Ruff (.281/.467/.406) round out the bulk of the lineup. But that’s without mentioning Keller, Havens, Cooper Burgess or Curry College commit Drew Fagala, all of whom received extensive playing time in preseason tournaments, or Texas Tech commit David DeHoyos, who missed most of the preseason with an arm injury.

It may seem like managing such a deep team would be difficult – keeping egos in check, maximizing talent, etc – but Koehl says that hasn’t been an issue.

“The great thing is, you don’t even have to talk to them a lot [about roles],” Koehl said. “Everybody wants a big role all the time … But I think you gotta get guys that are gonna buy into their role, and that’s the only way you’re going to have a successful season. And that’s the great thing about our guys … they’re all still fighting and competing for a role, but they also kind of understand where they’re starting to fit in.”

Garza, a senior, attributes that to the chemistry forged by the pandemic.

“Our chemistry this year is amazing,” Garza said. “If one dude goes down, everyone picks him up. Nobody makes him feel worse, and I think that’s what keeps us moving.

“Everyone’s just happy to be on the field together again … of course the pandemic has made us uncomfortable at times, and is something that had kicked us in the gut, but with the guys we have, it never stopped us – [We] kept on believing that we will play again one day.”

There’s been no shortage of difficulties this offseason, from the pandemic to a turnover in team leadership. But Koehl, who’s manned the ship since 2006, isn’t concerned about how the team will transition into the new season.

“Fortunately enough for us, where we’re at and the tradition that we have at this school, you [can] just build on what you had the year before,” Koehl said. “It’s hard losing the seniors that we did last year … but this year’s group is really stepping up already, from a leadership standpoint.”

And so, thanks to a deep lineup, electric pitching and a culture forged by fire, there’s no limit to where this team can go. As Michael Jordan once said, “the ceiling is the roof.”

“Our realistic expectations are to win a district championship,” Koehl said. “And our goal is to be in Round Rock in June … that’s where the state tournament is held, at Dell Diamond. … That is a realistic goal. And that’s not necessarily just coming from our coaching staff, but that’s coming from our guys, that’s coming from our kids. And they have a lot of belief in that.”

The path to Round Rock begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night at Wagner. Follow @ByJacksonPosey and @valleyventana on Twitter for live updates and analysis.