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Editor’s Note: The story misidentified Sharyland Pioneer High School diamondback pitcher Abel Anzaldua. We apologize for the error.
The baseball race we never got to see
By now it is well known how COVID-19 affected the local prep sports scene. A total of seven different sports saw their seasons come to premature ends when all contests were cancelled due to the pandemic. College sports met the same fate and the effect on professional leagues that were nearing completion, like the NBA and NHL is still unknown.
What has emerged from this time has been a lot of speculation about how things would have turned out had the pandemic and subsequent cancellations never occurred. Who would have won the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championships? What NBA teams were most hurt by the suspension of games? The questions and speculation could go on and on.
Similar guesses could be made for all the Big 7 sports affected. How would the soccer teams that were still alive have finished? Could we have had a state champion in powerlifting? What would have happened if the golf, tennis, track and field, and baseball/softball seasons had continued?
While all of these teams and athletes deserve praise for their achievements this season there was one particular sport that, based on what happened in 2019, could have been something special: District 31-5A baseball.
The 2019 season was an eventful one for District 31-5A in general and three Big 7 teams in particular. Sharyland High won the district title, Sharyland Pioneer was second, and La Joya Palmview finished fourth. Each team split their two games against each other during district. Four of the six regular season games between the three teams were one run affairs. One went extra innings. The real story, however, came in the post season.
Palmview knocked off two district champions before being eliminated in the third round in a tight (two more one run games) best-of-three series 2-1 by Sharyland. The Rattlers won their next round as well, setting up a regional final showdown with their sister school Pioneer. The Diamondbacks were coming off their own 2-1 series win over Rio Grande City (also from District 31-5A). Pioneer claimed the Regional championship by virtue of their two game sweep (one was a one run game) of the Rattlers, advancing to the state tournament in Round Rock where they were eliminated in the semi-finals.
It was indeed, an impressive post season. Four teams from the district made the third round. The Rattlers went to the fifth round and Pioneer was eliminated in the sixth, one game short from a shot at the state title.
So what could we have expected this year? The 2020 season was not a complete wash out for baseball. The teams from District 31-5A had, for the most part, completed their non-district and tournament games before play stopped.
All that remained for each were 14 district games, scheduled over a seven week period beginning March 17 and ending May 1.
Palmview, Sharyland High and Pioneer, much like any high school team, started their seasons with holes to fill from graduation, but each seemed to be finding their way; a testament to the strength of the programs built by coaches Manuel Garcia (Palmview), Casey Smith (Pioneer) and Bart Bickerton (Sharyland). Each squad had some veterans back as well.
Palmview was 9-3-1 coming into district, having won their 200th game in program history in a come-from-behind win over Weslaco East on March 12. The 2020 squad returned five starters from 2019, all seniors (Robby Ayala, Aldo Castaneda, Manuel Flores, Paulo Landeros, Jonathan Martinez). Four freshmen (Gael Gonzalez, Ezie Puente, Anakin Robles, Tony Villarreal) were seeing significant playing time.
Martinez, Landeros and Puente had each logged ample time on the pitcher’s mound for the Lobos during non-district action along with junior Jose Martinez. All had ERA’s below 2.00. Jonathan Martinez had 30 strikeouts from the 50 batters he had faced. At the plate, the Lobos had six players (Jonathan Martinez, Ayala, Robles, Castaneda, Gonzalez, Villarreal) batting .400 or better.
“We felt great about our team,” said Garcia, when asked about where his team was at going into district. Garcia said he talked with his players about the teams they were going to be facing in district; about the success those programs had achieved. “That’s how we were preparing our kids, and they were accepting the challenge.”
Pioneer, the big story of 2019, was doing their part in 2020 as well, playing a tough schedule against the likes of Calallen (twice), Kerrville Tivy and San Marcos, finishing non-district play with a record of 12-3-1.
“I really felt that by the end of that third tournament we were clicking and we were playing at a really high level,” said Smith. “We were about to start making a move.”
The Diamondbacks, like Palmview, returned five starters from 2019; three seniors (Trey Gonzalez, Evan Maldonado, Angel Nunez) and two sophomores (Juan Rivera, Oscar Serna).
Maldonado and junior David Lopez were having solid seasons as part of a group of pitchers logging the most innings for the Diamondbacks. Both had ERA’s under 2.00. Sophomore Abel Anzaldua was leading the team in strikeouts with 27. On offense the team was being paced by Maldonado, Rivera, Nunez and sophomore Angel Larranaga. All were hitting over .400 while recording a significant number of at-bats. Maldonado had also contributed 3 HRs.
Sharyland, the defending district champs, was 14-2-1 at the time of the cancellation of contests.
Coach Bickerton liked the way his team was progressing at the time, going 4-0 at their last tournament and defeating Edinburg Vela 11-0 in their last game.
“I really think we had started to kind of put it all together during that Edinburg tournament,” said Bickerton. “I finally felt like we were just getting ready to get on a roll. We were getting ready to play our best baseball.”
Seven starters from the 2019 squad were back for the Rattlers, six seniors (Abraham Alvarez, Randy Garcia, Chase Gerlach, Andy Lozano, Diego Pena, Martin Vasquez) and sophomore Saul Soto.
Junior Kike Cienfuegos was leading the team in innings pitched, followed by Gerlach, sophomore Carlos Garcia and junior Jesus Alarcon. Cienfuegos, Gerlach and Alarcon all had ERAs under 2.00. Garcia was leading the team in strikeouts. Both Vasquez and Alvarez were hitting over .500 and Gerlach was over .400. In addition, Vasquez had 5 HRs.
We would not have had to wait long to find out which team was going to get the upper hand once district play started. The three teams were all scheduled to play each other within the first three weeks of the district schedule.
Of course this is not to say that these were the only three teams to battle it out had the season gone on. All of the coaches I spoke with named Rio Grande City as another contender and the teams from Mission Veterans and PSJA Southwest were mentioned as well. All three teams had winning records going into district play.
In addition, numerous other intangibles like injuries and the weather could have played a role like they do in most seasons. Having games rearranged due to rain would have been better than what we got and, certainly, the events of this spring have been bigger than a few baseball games.
But it sure would have been fun to watch.