By Mike Bruu, TSB Sports Editor
At first, the McKinney North Bulldogs were the team that almost took down Regional Finalist Frisco Wakeland in the Bi-district round series last spring. Then they were the team that finished tournament play without a loss, anchored by two starters who tasted varsity baseball for the first time this season.
Next, the Bulldogs were the team that shot up into the top 10 in both the local and statewide rankings, climbing as high as No. 1 in the SportsDayHS poll. But after a 3-2 road loss at Wylie East, a team that was also in the top-ten, they were the team that would have to prove its toughness if it wanted the District 13-4A championship.
After a 5-0 shutout on April 19 over Wylie East at home, the Bulldogs were district champions and were no longer the baseball darlings of North Texas. No longer were teams fascinated by the effectiveness of their young pitching staff, and no longer did teams marvel at their 24-1 overall record.
Heading into the Bi-district series against Mt. Pleasant on Thursday, the McKinney North Bulldogs are no longer the hunters for respect. They have earned that during the regular season. Now they are the hunted, and according to senior catcher JT Stevenson, that is ok with him and his teammates.
“What I remember from last year is Rockwall-Heath, who won state, those were the guys who everyone was out to get,” said Stevenson. “That was the biggest game of every team’s life because they wanted to beat them. Now it is our turn to be that team. It is our turn for team’s to come after us, but we know that we can punch back.”
Last season the Bulldogs were eliminated 2-1 in the first round by Frisco Wakeland in a best-of-three series. Despite losing 12 seniors from that team, including the top three pitchers in innings pitched, head coach Jim Gatewood and the Bulldogs retooled in the offseason and prepared for the new competition in District 13-4A.
To replace Will Shumate, Aaron Rhodes, and Will Cooper, Gatewood looked to junior Julian Pope and sophomore Gabe Constantine to take over on the mound. While neither player had varsity experience, Gatewood was confident that both could step in and perform at a high level.
Despite the high expectations for his kids, even Gatewood could not have seen the level of production both Pope and Constantine would show during the regular season. Pope went 8-0 with a .64 ERA in 44 innings, allowing just four earned runs. Constantine would throw 13 1/3 more innings than Pope, but managed an 8-1 record with a 1.34 ERA, allowing 11 earned runs and striking out 67.
Entering their first playoff series at the high school varsity level, Gatewood said he won’t have any special talks with the players before the games, and said it will be business as usual starting on Thursday night.
“Keep going on like we do,” said Gatewood. “I think that is what is good about playing good teams in your league. I think three of the top five teams in the area are in our district, including us, so we are playing good people and it shouldn’t change how we do business. Hopefully it won’t.”
While the first six innings are in good hands for the Bulldogs, the seventh inning in a close ballgame belongs to senior Anthony Herrera. In 24 innings, Herrera has not allowed an earned run this season and has racked up 10 saves, striking out 31 hitters along the way. Despite his ability to strike batters out, Herrera said he is about attacking the zone and just getting three outs as quick as possible.
“When I come into close, I am going in there to attack the zone and not get too pretty,” said Herrera. “I’m trying to throw strikes and not hitting big time spots to get strikeouts. I just want the hitters have to earn their way on base and not walk anybody.”
As a team, the Bulldogs allowed just 1.2 runs per game in district play, including six shutouts in 14 games. In the final four district games, North allowed a total of two runs which both came in the 7-2 win versus Greenville.
At the plate, Herrera is also the team’s top hitter with a team-high 30 RBIs and a batting average over .450. Along with closing on the mound, Herrera is the Bulldogs’ starting third baseman. With a pitching staff that doesn’t allow many runs to come across the plate, he said that it makes the hitters in the lineup relax more and just focus on having good at bats.
“We don’t have as much pressure because we know our pitchers are out there battling his tail off and always putting up a zero,” said Herrera. “As hitters we look at them and see the confidence they have, and they are going out there and not even acting like it is a tight ballgame. It makes it easier to just go up there and hit.”
Along with Herrera, seven other players have batting averages over .300 and four players have 20 or more RBIs. North averaged nearly six runs a game in district play, including a 16-run performance at Royse City on Apr. 6.
With just one loss of the resume, it would appear as though the Bulldogs never had much adversity to deal with. While Gatewood acknowledges that his team has been lucky with injuries and keeping players on the field, he said that it has been a typical high school baseball season in terms of handling different situations.
“It has been kind of a typical season,” said Gatewood. “We have had to comeback in quite a few games, and they have done a good job of keeping their cool no matter what the situation is. Whether we get down a lot early or somebody doesn’t have a good game, we stay level headed and try to take care of business.”
The only game that Bulldogs haven’t been able to come back in was the Mar. 26 loss at Wylie East. Gatewood said that his players learned from that night and handled the loss well, and it was a good reminder of what they have left to do in order to reach their goals this season.
A little less than a month later the Bulldogs would have their revenge, shutting out the Raiders at Bulldog Field in one of the most memorable games in program history, according to Stevenson.
“It was the best feeling in the world and everyone had chills before the game,” said Stevenson. “I was talking to our first baseman Speers and during the National Anthem he said, ‘JT, look,’ and his hand was shaking. We just had nerves the whole game and I have never had a game where everyone was so intense. The stands were packed and everyone was flowing off of each other’s energy. That win was by far that biggest thing that has ever been here.”
For the final seven games of the district schedule, North, Wylie East, and Lovejoy were all fighting for the title in one of the more fascinating district races in North Texas. While it isn’t exactly the playoffs, Stevenson said playing in playoff-like environments the last month has helped prepare his team for the real deal.
“We have a lot of good teams in the district, so playing against them that isn’t win-or-go-home helps out a lot because when we are in those situations, we know how to fight through it,” said Stevenson.
As the team’s starting catcher, Stevenson will have the best seat in the house when it comes to the first playoff starts for both Pope and Constantine. As the veteran in the pitcher-catcher battery, he said he has just one piece of advice for his young throwers.
“As far as that, you just have to tell them to slow it down,” Stevenson said. “Again, we are playing the game of baseball and not against the other team. Coach Gatewood tells us all the time that we are playing Bulldog baseball and not playing their baseball. As a catcher, I will tell them just to slow it down and focus on throwing strikes. My advice to the younger guys is to just slow it down and know that it is still baseball out here.”
Gatewood is no stranger to postseason baseball at North, but the seventh year head coach said that he has high expectations for his players in what he hopes is a long playoff run.
“They know what they are getting into, and they have worked very hard to get to this point,” said Gatewood. “I would be very disappointed if they don’t keep up with what they are doing here.”
North will play District 14-4A No. 4 seed Mt. Pleasant in a best-of-three series, beginning Thursday night. Game two is Friday night and if necessary, game three is Saturday afternoon. Games one and two are scheduled for 7 p.m. and both are at Mesquite Poteet.