Monday , 21 August 2017

A Winning Tradition: Why Youth, Coaching and Fun Keep McKinney North’s Baseball Program Near the Top

By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor

If you take a look around the outskirts of the McKinney North baseball field, you might notice a couple of banners flapping in the wind. Each has a different year and its respective accomplishment in the postseason inscribed on it, and for a program in just its 10th year of varsity play, the number of flags might astound you.

From the banner that reads “2009 State Quarter-Finalist” to the one that reads “2006 State Semi-Finalist,” the deepest the Bulldogs have ever gone in the UIL playoffs, the list of achievements for such a young program has created what the school calls a “winning tradition.”

Still aren’t impressed? How about five district championships and a record of 193-105, including an 87-41 district mark in that span?

That about qualifies a program to say it has built a winning tradition.

After taking Frisco Wakeland, the Class 4A Region II finalists, to the full three-game series in the Bi-District round last season, the 2013 Bulldogs are back in full force and ready to make another run at the program’s first state championship. Entering Friday night’s home contest with Sherman, North is 16-1 and ranked No. 1 in the Dallas Morning News’ SportsDayHS area 4A rankings.

The only blemish on the Bulldogs’ resume came on March 26 at Wylie East, when the Raiders held on for a 3-2 victory. The Raiders are currently 16-3-1 and No. 2 in SportsDayHS poll behind the Bulldogs, while another District 13-4A foe, Lovejoy, is No. 4 behind Frisco Liberty.

So what makes the 2013 version of the Bulldogs so special? Why do some high school baseball folks say this team could be the best one in the program’s history? What is the reason why many see this team making a trip to Dell Diamond in Round Rock for the state finals in early June?

For starters, you won’t find too many teams who are more relaxed and enjoy the game more than the North Bulldogs. With 13 upperclassmen on the roster, head coach Jim Gatewood has a squad that is capable of policing itself and focusing its mind when it is time to work. But while the players take the games seriously, there is no denying that each and every one of them enjoys playing the game of baseball.

“With a lot of veteran guys back, you get that,” said Gatewood. “You have guys that have played at this level and know what to expect, so it’s not like they are scared to death or that they won’t have success. They know what to do and work very hard in practice. I haven’t been surprised at all with the way they have played.”

Gatewood, who is in his seventh season as the skipper for the Bulldogs, has seen his fair share of success at multiple levels of baseball. From his playing days at Henderson State University in Arkansas in the mid-1980s, to his eight years as an assistant at the University of Alabama, and even his 2008 Texas Collegiate League Championship with the McKinney Marshalls, Gatewood has found success on the diamond.

“I think we are so good every year because of Coach Gatewood,” said sophomore pitcher Gabe Constantine. “He has been around the game for so long, so he knows what he is doing and we just trust him. He helps us out and leads us to victory game-in and game-out.”

Constantine is one of six underclassmen on the roster for Gatewood, but glancing quickly over his numbers on the mound prove why he is worth the varsity spot. The sophomore gunslinger is 4-1 with a 2.04 ERA, allowing just 10 earned runs in 34 1/3 innings. Constantine said that despite his fastball being his go-to pitch, he also sports a changeup and a curveball to strike batters out, a big reason why he has a team-high 39 strikeouts this season.

Constantine said that getting accustomed to the varsity speed took a little bit of time, but once he picked it up, things got pretty fun for him.

“It was very different,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the speed of the game at the varsity level, but once I got in, it all just fell into place. It is just a game, so I knew I would be fine. If I went out there and competed, I would be OK.”

But while Constantine’s performances have been impressive, junior Julian Pope has emerged as a weekly starter for Gatewood and the Bulldogs, despite entering his first season at the varsity level. Pope is 5-0 with a meniscule 0.49 ERA in 28 2/3 innings, allowing just two earned runs and striking out 30 batters.

Pope, who also plays centerfield at times, said he is very comfortable on the hill because of the trust factor his has with his teammates behind him on defense.

“Just to know that even if you don’t have your best stuff that day and someone will pick you up, it’s a great feeling,” said Pope.

But like all great teams, the Bulldogs have a senior who can come in the game in the late innings and seal the deal. That man is Anthony Herrera, who is 3-0 with six saves this season, sporting an incredible 0.00 ERA through 20 innings, despite not pitching at all in 2012.

With Pope, Constantine, and Herrera at his disposal on any given night, Gatewood appears to be in pretty good hands. Despite losing Will Shumate, Aaron Rhodes, and Will Cooper to graduation last year — guys who combined to pitch 129 innings and allow just 47 earned runs —Gatewood has been more than impressed with his three replacements.

“All three of those guys have done a tremendous job for us and kept us in games,” Gatewood said. “They have just battled all year long. Going into the year we lost three really good guys on the mound, and we have most of our position players back but no real pitchers back with varsity experience. We knew they were good and we just thought they could make the move from playing on JV to playing at the varsity level.”

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