The Grapevine baseball team truly lived and embraced the life of a team on the brink.
When the Mustangs reflect upon their path to back-to-back appearances in the Class 5A state tournament, it says more about the players’ substance.
Between the 2016 and 2017 runs, the Mustangs (33-13) won 14 elimination games. They won six to capture the 2016 state title. They won eight to reach the 2017 state championship game. Here’s the kicker: In all 14 elimination games, Grapevine did not — repeat did not — trail at any point. That covered 98 innings.
“There was never going to be a time when they stepped on the field and thought they were not going to be able to compete,” Grapevine coach Steve Hutcherson said. “If they were down in a series, they just were able to fight through it.”
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We were confident being in that position. We out-willed and out-hustled people. The biggest thing is the guys all trusted each other. We were just never nervous in Game 3.
- Grapevine pitcher Connor Neuman
Sooner or later it was going to end. It did last Saturday when the Mustangs fell to Port Neches-Grove, 4-2, in the title game. The program had not dropped one of these games since May 15, 2015, when it was swept by Fort Worth Arlington Heights in the 5A Region I area playoffs, a span of 757 days.
The psychology behind this is fight or flight. A team is either going to meet the challenge or run from it. The Mustangs became the standard bearer for what it means to play with everything at stake.
This spring, they only had to do it in one game three times. That included the single-game playoff against Fort Worth South Hills and the deciding third games against Sherman and Aledo.
They made it tougher on themselves in the regional semifinals against Amarillo and regional finals against Colleyville Heritage when they lost the opener.
“We always had the same mentality,” senior right-hander Connor Neuman said. “We were confident being in that position. We out-willed and out-hustled people. The biggest thing is the guys all trusted each other. We were just never nervous in Game 3.”
It continued in the state semifinal against Corpus Christi Moody in a 3-2 win. While the Trojans tied the game in the sixth, the Mustangs pushed across the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh and then quashed Moody’s threat in the bottom of the seventh to reach the championship game.
The streak was immediately snapped in the bottom of the first inning when Port Neches-Grove scored twice. Ironically, the Mustangs never rallied.
“Probably the best thing I told them was this game doesn’t define the 2017 team,” Hutcherson said. “Last year, things lined up for us to get there. This year, we were a known. Teams were coming for us. To still have the will to compete and win and get back to this spot takes a special group.”
That mentality began in the fall of 2016, when teammates went to offseason workouts wearing T-shirts with a target on the back of them. The Mustangs understood the responsibility of meeting the expectations.
Grapevine loses eight seniors from this roster, including Neuman, shortstop Boone Montgomery, first baseman David Leal and infielders London Green and Ryan Drake. A different-looking roster will be challenged to make it three consecutive trips in 2018.
“This year just showed that it was possible to get there,” Neuman said. “We were set up for the long run. This group of guys just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”