Sandies take on Barbers Hill in 5A state semis
Amarillo High's Will Franklin is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a run against Aledo in Game 3 of the Region I-5A final at Christensen Stadium in Midland last week. [Michael Bauer/ For Press Pass Sports]
By Lee Passmore
School is out, summer has unofficially started and before this week all but 24 high school baseball teams in the state of Texas have long since turned in their gear until next year.
But the Amarillo High Sandies aren’t among the majority who are following that pattern. When they take the field at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Class 5A state semifinal at Round Rock’s Dell Diamond against Mont Belvieu Barbers Hill, they’ll be making their second appearance at the state tournament in the last six years.
While this year’s Sandies (33-9) haven’t exactly been here before, they aren’t going to let the situation take them by surprise.
“Obviously we plan for everything that we can and we planned to be here,” AHS coach Randon Johnson said. “There’s only four teams in 5A in the whole state still doing what we’re doing today. If you’re at the beginning of the year and you’re expecting to be here, great, but most the time it’s a relief to be here, but also something that we’re excited about.”
Amarillo High didn’t reach Round Rock the easy way. The Sandies had to beat Aledo two straight games in their Region I-5A final series at Midland last week after losing the first game 2-1.
In both games, Amarillo High got off to a fast start, sending 10 batters to the plate and scoring five runs in the bottom of the first both times to go on to 6-3 and 8-1 victories to punch a ticket to state.
One of the people who celebrated with Johnson on the field after Saturday’s win was former Midland High coach Barry Russell, who led Midland to two state tournaments and a state championship in 2001, and for whom Johnson served as an assistant. Johnson can pick the brain of Russell and former AHS coach Jeff Timmons, who Johnson replaced in 2019, on what to expect when the Sandies get to Round Rock.
“It’s been a process even coming to this point just talking to guys about what you do for scouting when it comes to the semifinals because you’ve got three different opponents you might play instead of two teams who are playing at one site,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of people reach out to me and obviously talking to Barry and other people who have been in this situation, I’ve really leaned on them a lot to figure out how do we get down there and make it about baseball.” The Sandies don’t enter the state tournament as an unknown as they finished the regular season ranked No. 7 in the state, and in the region quarterfinal swept No. 2 Lubbock Cooper. But Barbers Hill (35-8-1) presents a unique challenge.
Barbers Hill is coming off a pair of sweeps to reach Round Rock, most impressively having swept former No. 1 Friendswood in the Region III-5A final, giving the Eagles some serious momentum.
“They beat Friendswood who was pretty much the No. 1 team in the state for a long time,” Johnson said. “Friendswood ended up with three losses on the whole season. Like everybody else (the Eagles) are good and they’ve beaten people who are good to get to this point. They’re very similar on the mound to what we saw from Aledo, guys who don’t necessarily throw super hard, but they do a great job of changing speeds for strikes.”
It’s likely that the Sandies will see either Hunter Mercer (10-1) or Brent Holdren (9-1) to start on the mound. Offensively, senior shortstop Cameron Cauley provides the spark out of the leadoff spot, hitting .455 for the Eagles.
Amarillo High will likely start senior left-hander Tristan Curless (10-1) against Barbers Hill. Curless won game two against Aledo to force the third and decisive game.
The winner will play the winner of the 7 p.m. semifinal between Hallsville (32-8) and Leander Rouse (30-10) in the state championship game Saturday at noon.
Amarillo High catcher Cayden Phillips, left, has been a leader for the Sandies batting .411 this season. [Michael Bauer/ For Press Pass Sports]
Phillips provides postseason pop
While Amarillo High has gotten to this point thanks in large part to a strong lineup from top to bottom which doesn’t afford opposing pitchers any easy outs, senior cleanup hitter Cayden Phillips has been perhaps the most prominent in stepping up during the big moments.
Phillips, who has signed to play catcher at Dallas Baptist next year, has delivered at the plate the way you’d expect a cleanup hitter to, especially in the postseason. He’s batting .411 with seven home runs and 47 RBIs, as his homers lead the Sandies and his RBIs are second on the team to Curless.
Four of those homers have come during the playoffs as Phillips has delivered for the Sandies and provided a spark to give them momentum in must-win games.
“I think it just comes in the right times and the game just rewards you,” Phillips said. “I’m never going up there trying to hit it out but it just seems the game rewards us when we really need one. I like to hit the ball hard in the gap and then run and get a lot of balls that hit that jetstream.”
The Sandies actually lost their first game of the postseason to Lubbock Monterey in the bidistrict round, but they came back to Sandie Field and won their next two via the 10-run mercy rule, thanks in part to monumental homers by Phillips in both games. In the second game against Cooper, Phillips belted a two-run homer in the first inning which provided Amarillo High with the momentum in a 7-1 win.
But none were bigger than what came in the second game against Aledo last week. The first three AHS batters reached in the bottom of the first to bring up Phillips, who sent a towering blast over the left field fence for a grand slam for a 4-0 lead which set the tone for the remainder of the series.
“I think that was definitely the most important one,” Phillips said. “It just came to spark everybody up. We were talking to some guys this weekend and they said there’s nothing better than a home run in the first inning to get it started against anybody, especially a grand slam. It just kind of sets the tone.”
Now the Sandies are in a similar place to the Amarillo High team which went to state in 2016, the last year AHS competed in Class 6A. That team was dominated by sophomores, but was led by senior catcher Clay Koelzer, who played at Texas Tech and West Texas A&M.
This year’s team is far more senior-dominated, including Phillips himself. Yet, as catcher he’s playing a role similar to Koelzer.
“Clay’s a great guy,” Phillips said. “I take lessons and he’s out there a lot of the time. He’s really just been a guy I’ve looked up to my whole life as a kid in seventh grade watching those guys make their run. My dad used to talk about ‘That’s the guy you want to be like.’
“We’re really alike as far as breaking things down and we like to talk about it and feel what we’re doing. Clay’s been a huge influence.”
Don’t be surprised if a future Sandies catcher says the same thing about Phillips.