After being as close to the brink as they could possibly get the last time they played, the Nazareth Swifts now have a second chance at a first state championship.
At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Swifts will be the first team to take the field at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond, along with their opponent, Kennard, in the Class 1A state baseball semifinals. Nazareth (20-1) looks like a favorite to win a state title, as the Swifts are making their second straight appearance at the state tournament.
They’re doing so two games after suffering their first loss of the season in the Region I-1A final against Ira the Saturday before last to force a third and final game of a best-of-three series. In that third game, Nazareth fell behind by 10 runs in the second inning before clawing back to tie the game and force extra innings. They won a 15-14 slugfest when Will Young’s sacrifice fly scored Braten Bullard with the winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Now the Swifts must win two games to win a state championship and become the first Panhandle school to win a state baseball title since Dumas in 1971. First-year Naz coach Tyler Goodwin likes his team’s chances.
“You come off that high after beating Ira and the emotions are up there, but very quickly you’ve got to come back to reality and understand that you have to go to work,” Goodwin said. “We’ve still got two more games to go to accomplish the goal we set out to do. Morale is high and we’re very excited to be back here. We’ve got one thing on our mind and that’s winning.”
Except for one game, Nazareth has done nothing but do that all season. The Swifts can honestly say that they’ve carried momentum from one day to the next every day this season.
What’s unusual about this week is that they’ve had a full week off. When they take the field against Kennard (24-14), it will be the first time in 11 days they’ve played a competitive game.
There’s the risk that whatever emotional momentum which was built from such an epic comeback win might be blunted by such a long layoff. That’s not a concern for Goodwin.
“The caliber of kids we’ve got and the mindset we’ve got, that doesn’t bother me at all,” Goodwin said. “Any time you have a comeback like that, and you advance to the state tournament, heck yeah you’re going to have momentum. I think it gives us confidence that even if bad things start happening we have the ability to come back.”
Nazareth had to respond not only to a 10-run deficit but from the negative momentum of a 7-5 loss immediately before that which got the Swifts in that situation to start the game. If nothing else, it showed they could bounce back from adversity.
“You can use the phrase reality check because we knew there was a chance we could be beaten going into it,” Goodwin said. “I guess you could say it wasn’t a super big shock because we knew how good of a team Ira was. We responded well. That’s just a testament to our kids.”
Nazareth, Kennard and Abbott knew for more than a week that they had already sewn up spots in the state tournament, but had to wait on the Region IV final between D’Hanis and defending state champion Fayetteville last weekend.
D’Hanis (26-3) swept Fayetteville and will face Abbott (21-3-2) at noon Wednesday in the second semifinal. The semifinal winners will square off for the state championship at 9 a.m. Thursday at Dell.
For now, though, Nazareth is only concerned about Kennard. Like the Swifts, the Tigers needed three games to win the region finals against Union Hill, winning the first game 10-0 and losing the second one 5-4 before winning game three 16-4, mirroring Nazareth’s pattern in the same round.
“You know they’re going to be a good baseball team if they’re still playing,” Goodwin said of the Tigers. “They were down here last year and our boys got to have a good look at them. They’re going to be able to hit the baseball, but past that I don’t know a whole lot. They’ve played some tough competition so I don’t think their record speaks for how good they are.”
Last year, Kennard reached the state championship game before losing to Fayetteville. The day before that, Naz lost to Fayetteville in the state semis 4-0.
Nazareth had only three hits in that game, but the Swifts return five starters, including Trent Gerber, Carson Heiman, Sterl Welps, Tanner Birkenfeld and Luke Schulte. Gerber, a senior, is scheduled to start on the mound against Kennard, and will carry a 12-0 record into the game.
In last year’s state semi, Gerber threw 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief to help keep the Swifts in the game. He’ll be expected to do even more against Kennard.
“It hasn’t really crossed my mind, but I think we’re going to go into it like a normal game,” said Gerber, who’s also hitting .418 to lead the Swifts and hit a two-run home run in game three against Ira. “I think last year the nerves really got to us. I think we’ve just got to calm ourselves down and not worry about that stuff and let the game come to us.”
Dell is easily the biggest park and crowd the Swifts will play in this season. That alone will take some adapting to in addition to the situation.
Gerber said that hitting and defense were more effected by Dell’s size than anything.
“The way the outfield was really effected our play,” Gerber said. “The gaps got us and we took some bad angles to the ball. We tried to hit the ball too hard and got under it a lot. That’s how we came out with only three hits in that game.”
Goodwin doesn’t think the stage will be too big for the Swifts.
“Our kids are successful and they always have been at all levels in everything they’ve been playing in,” Goodwin said. “These kids have all been to the state basketball tournament either as players or managers. I don’t think that the spotlight or the big stadium or anything that goes with it will be a big concern.”