By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
Last year was a rough season for the McKinney Lions.
Finishing 4-10 in District 10-4A and 8-17 overall in 2012, the Lions missed the playoffs in the program’s final season in Class 4A. After realignment moved MHS into District 10-5A, head coach Jeremy Price and his team would go from facing Rockwall-Heath and Highland Park multiple times a year, to facing Allen and Plano West, along with three other programs.
Returning almost a full roster from last season’s team, the 11 seniors on the team were left with the responsibility of returning the proud Lion baseball program back to the postseason. Facing one of the more difficult districts in the state with a schedule that had each team playing one another three times, McKinney was seen as a long shot to crack to playoff mix in 2013.
Before the season began, the seniors gathered together in a meeting to discuss the goals and expectations for the upcoming season. Senior catcher Dalton Harris was a vocal part of the meetings, and said he and his teammates wanted badly to return the Lion baseball program back to its high standards and make it to the playoffs this season.
“Last year we had a couple of guys who were outliers and weren’t really in it for the right reasons, so we all sat down at the beginning of the season and figured out what our goal was,” said Harris. “We wanted to bring this program back to what it has been in the past and tried to keep that tradition going. Once we got to that goal, we all got on board and went in the same direction.”
Garrett Christianson, the Lions starting third baseman, said the biggest change that needed to be made was having more team unity, both on and off the field.
“Our biggest thing we decided that needed to change is we needed to get better as a team, both in the locker room and on the field,” said Christianson. “We stuck to it all year and if anything happens during a game on the field, we make sure that it is solved afterwards.”
Facing a district comprised of Allen, the three Plano schools, and crosstown rival McKinney Boyd, the Lions were jumping from one difficult district in Class 4A to another difficult one in Class 5A. Despite the big named schools on the schedule, Harris said the team wasn’t intimidated of the competition they would be facing.
“It wasn’t intimidating because we knew that they would be great competition and that we could compete with it,” said Harris. “Coach Price told us at the beginning of the season how most of the district ballgames we play will be 2-1 or 3-2 ballgames, and that they would be decided by just a couple of mistakes.”
“All the guys were excited to play in the new district,” said Christianson. “Coming from the district last year with Rockwall, Rockwall-Heath, and Highland Park, it wasn’t much of a change but it was exciting to take on the biggest schools in Texas and make an impact in 5A.”
Through five district games, the projections seemed to be more correct than not. The Lions were 1-4, having lost the first two games to Plano, one to Plano East, and the first of the three games against Plano West. With ten games left to play, the Lions called another team meeting after a practice one day to get everybody back on track to what the expectations were for the team.
“We decided that a couple of guys thought they were better than the team and not going along with the direction of the team that we had decided from the beginning of the season,” said Harris. “So we got everybody back in line a little bit and we knew that we could have won every game that we had played up to that point.”
“We played good games even in the early losses,” said Christianson. “Things weren’t falling through at the plate but we had some really great pitching performances from (Brad) Vassar and (Brett) Gannaway. We had a lot of promise in those games but just couldn’t finish them off, so we knew we were in a good spot to be able to win more games in district.”
Harris said the Lion players agreed to focus their free time on improving the fundamentals of the game, whether that was taking extra groundballs or spending more time in the cage hitting off the tee. On Mar. 28, McKinney shutout Plano West 6-0 at home behind a brilliant start from Gannaway, and from that point on the Lions started gaining confidence and momentum.
McKinney won seven of its last ten ballgames, including two wins over district champion Plano West and third place Allen, as well as a 7-3 win over second place Plano. The Lions won the season series with Plano West, Allen, and Plano East, on their way to going 8-7 and wrapping up the No. 4 seed in 10-5A.
“Every game we knew we had to go out there and win because we were fighting for a spot,” said Christianson, in regards to the atmosphere of the games down the stretch. “It seemed to go by really fast, but it was really fun to go into every game and have the guys excited like it was a playoff game.”
McKinney will face District 9-5A champion Jesuit in the Bi-district round series, beginning this Thursday night at Al Alford Field.
Several years ago Price had Zach Lee and Matt Lipka as his two starters on the mound during the week. Both were eventual first round Major League draft picks, and while Vassar and Gannaway may not be Major League caliber arms, the two have emerged as the aces for the Lions this season.
Vassar went 7-3 in the regular season with a 1.71 ERA, allowing 14 earned runs in 57 and a 1/3 innings. He also struck out team-high 63 hitters and walked 24. On Apr. 19, Vassar threw a no-hitter against Plano West in a 2-0 road win.
“Brad has always had a moving fastball so we like to bust left-hand hitters in and keep it away from righties,” said Harris.
Meanwhile, Gannaway finished 5-2 with a 1.77 ERA, allowing 13 earned runs in 51 and a 1/3 innings. He struck out 49 hitters and walked 21, something Harris said the junior pitcher struggled with at times last year but improved upon greatly in 2013.
“Last year Gannaway struggled with a lot of walks and he couldn’t spot up anything but his fastball,” said Harris. “Other than increased velocity from last year, he is throwing that changeup and curveball for strikes when he wants to and can chase it out of the zone when he wants to.”
Harris said the key for the two in the playoff series with Jesuit is to throw strikes and to feel comfortable in throwing the full arsenal of pitches in any count.
“When you get up in the count it is great to be able to go to your full arsenal of pitches, instead of always having to rely on your fastball,” said Harris.
“Just keep doing what they are doing and relying on their defense,” said Christianson. “Nothing fazes them and both are really great pitchers. It is exciting for them because both have had really outstanding years.”
Harris compares the Rangers to fellow 10-5A rival Allen, and said they will use that to their advantage this week.
“You can kind of compare them to Allen with their pitching staff and the way that they approach the game,” he said. “We will just approach it like another district game and another district series.”
At the plate, the Lions are a self-labeled “scrappy” team. With just two hitters sitting with multiple home runs, McKinney is a small-ball, play for a run an inning sort of offense. Behind the strong pitching from Vassar and Gannaway, Christianson said that the offense doesn’t have to worry about outslugging their opponents. If the Lions can do the little things at the plate, they can win any game they play in.
“It is not a bad way to describe us, but we are a very scrappy ball club,” said Christianson. “We think that when we have more energy than the other team and do the little things, with our great defense and pitching we believe we can win ballgames.”
With game one at their home field, a win on Thursday night does several things for the Lions. Not only do they go up 1-0 in the best-of-three series, but they assure themselves the ability to play game three back at Al Alford Field on Saturday afternoon if the Rangers tie the series on Friday night at Jesuit.
“It is our first goal right now,” said Harris. “We are going to take it game-by-game. A lot of our guys, myself included, haven’t experienced a playoff series before, so we are just focused on getting that first win. We will play it inning-by-inning, game-by-game from there. Our number one goal is to win that first game, and we are a pretty great advantage knowing that third game is at home if necessary.”
Game two is Friday night at Jesuit H.S. Both games one and two are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. If necessary, game three is Saturday afternoon at Al Alford Field, beginning at noon.