Rajesh Murti is one of a kind
It really hasn't been that long since the Hurst L.D. Bell baseball team reached the postseason.
The year was 2014 to be exact.
But that can seem like an eternity to a program that is used to winning, like Bell, which last won a district championship in 2011; it reached a regional final the same season.
It seems like forever in the mind of a young man who longed to be a part of that winning tradition.
"It's always been a goal of mine to make the playoffs," junior pitcher Mason Ornelas said. "I always went to the playoff games before I got to high school and watched them, and I remember saying to myself, 'I want that.'
"My eighth-grade year my goal was to make the varsity the next year and get to the playoffs. That's what I figured Bell baseball teams do. When I got there and we didn't, it felt bad."
Though he made the varsity team as a freshman, Ornelas had to wait until this season, his junior year, for that to come true. L.D. Bell (19-9) will face McKinney Boyd (16-14-1) in a Class 6A Region I best-of-3 series this weekend. Game 1 is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at John Paul II. Game 2 is Friday, same time and location with a Game 3, if necessary, at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Not only is the Texas A&M commit thrilled, so is Bell coach Paul Gibson, who has known that feeling 14 previous times in his 25 years at the helm.
"It's good to be back, especially in this district, as tough as it is," Gibson said. "Our depth has been depleted the past few years."
The Raiders ended the regular season 19-9 overall and 10-4 in District 5-6A. The district wins are more than the past three seasons combined.
How did the turnaround happen? It helps to have seven players who saw some starting action at one time or another last season. It helps even more when you've got a pitching staff that features four strong right-handed arms, including Ornelas, along with seniors Reese Gould, Johnny Sifuentes, and Blake Empkey.
Gould was 9-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 58 strikeouts entering the playoffs. Ornelas was 4-4 with a 1.95 ERA, 54 strikeouts and a save. Sifuentes was 2-1 with three saves, a 2.11 ERA and 40 strikeouts.
Pitching has been the team's mainstay this season with a team ERA well under three runs and team batting average under .250. Ornelas has the team's only two home runs.
But the Raiders are manufacturing runs via small ball, or as Gibson prefers to say, "execution." He also credits the leadership of eight seniors on the roster.
"These guys have been waiting their turn. They want to have their year upon our leader board," Gibson said.
Gibson said he got a glimpse of what might happen this season last year, though his team was nonetheless struggling.
"I knew we had a chance to be good this season," he said. "We lost four or five close games last season. A player here or there and we were in the playoff race."
The Raiders actually lost six games by two runs or less. Also, seven were wins of the same variety.
They began this season 0-3 but rebounded to win seven straight.
"That actually helped us, playing those teams, even though we lost," Gibson said. "Playing in this doggone district, we have to play a tough schedule to get ready."
One of those teams in District 5-6A is Southlake Carroll, which reached the state tournament last season and are ranked third in the state by the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association. The Raiders split two games with the Dragons this season.
"We're in probably one of the hardest districts in Texas," Ornelas said. "We face great pitchers every Tuesday and Friday."
Defense has also been a big part of the Bell turnaround. The Raiders averaged more than a double play in each league game.
But Gibson won't compare this year's team to others before it. He'll only say, "We've played a really tough schedule, and we're in a tough district, and we're handling it very well."
Ornelas said the excitement has spread throughout the community, particularly at school.
"It's exciting. Kids congratulate us and talk about the games. They want to come see us," he said. "L.D. Bell baseball is back."