Hayde Key knew he was only 10 pitches shy of the limit entering the seventh and final inning Friday night.
But coming out of the baseball game wasn’t an option, not with a one-run lead and Ridge Point history on the line.
“If Coach (Clinton Welch) had told me he was taking me out before the inning began, I would have refused to come out,” Key said.
That determination and resiliency, which has been the name of the game for the Panthers all season, pushed them another step toward the mountaintop. Key pitched a perfect inning to finish off the 3-2 win against Kingwood, which swept the Region III-6A series and sent Ridge Point to the UIL state tournament for the first time.
Ridge Point (32-4-1) will square off against McKinney Boyd (31-14) in the Class 6A state semifinals on Friday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock. Reaching that point was a quite a feat for the Panthers, whose attitude never wavered while rebounding from early-season struggles or stepping up with their backs against the wall during the highest-stakes games of the season.
“This team has been down half our games this season, but we rally back every time. We just know we can win,” infielder Jack Baker said. “I don’t know what it is, but we just find a way to win. It’s crazy. It really is.”
Ridge Point’s 2015 softball team, 2015 football team and 2018 volleyball team made it to the state tournament but came up short. The Panther baseball team wants to change that trend.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to get on the air-conditioned bus and go to Round Rock,” catcher Will Pendergrass said. “It just feels so good to get to do it.”
Beginning with a winner-take-all battle in the regional quarterfinals against Cypress Fairbanks, the Panthers had overcome early-inning deficits in four consecutive games prior to Saturday’s wire-to-wire clincher. Overall, Welch’s squad has won 10 of the 11 games it’s played in the postseason and has lost just twice since Feb. 23 in what is easily the best run in program history.
“Any year is a good time to go to state. You can be a very good team but if you don’t have the right mix of kids you won’t get to go,” Welch said. “These kids not only play baseball, they compete. And they have competed really well during this playoff run. Hopefully we are not done.”
Key and outfielder Austin Bradbury were monumental game-changers in both regional final bouts.
Key, Bradbury key
Game 1 comeback
After falling behind 5-1 after four innings in the series opener against Kingwood, the Panthers needed a dugout full of heroes to pull out a 6-5, extra-inning win.
In the top of the fifth, with runners on first and second base, Key singled in a run. Preston Steszewski followed with a triple, scoring two runs to cut the deficit to 5-4.
“I had two strikes and he hadn’t thrown me any curveballs all night, so I was looking for a fastball and he left one up and I just put it in the gap,” Steszewski said.
In the bottom of the seventh, left fielder Bradbury threw out the potential winning run at home plate as Pendergrass applied the tag.
“The throw Austin made was huge,” Welch said. “He has a big arm and he showed it when it mattered. He had to be accurate, too. He literally threw a strike.”
With two outs in the top of the eighth, Tanner Bond laid down a bunt single to third base, and Baker followed with a double to give the Panthers’ a 6-5 lead they would not relinquish.
“I had been swinging at a few bad pitches earlier, so I changed my load a little,” Baker said. “After my previous at-bat, I knew I was going to get him next time.”
In the bottom of the eighth, Kingwood put the tying run on third base and the winning run on second before Panther reliever Dylan Bobo shut them down.
Key led the Panthers with three hits and an RBI, and Vossos had two hits and one RBI.
Bradbury sets Game 2 tone
In Game 2, Key pitched a complete game, giving up just two runs and four hits, but more importantly kept his composure when the championship jitters hit the Panthers in the late innings.
Bradbury, after saving Game 1 by cutting down the potential winning run, hit a two-run home run in the second inning to give Ridge Point a 2-0 lead.
“I got a fastball or slider. It didn’t break much and it was in on my hands. I was able to turn on it and I got most of it,” Bradbury said.
With the game seemingly under control, Ridge Point suddenly got the jitters.
“We didn’t play very well in the late innings,” Welch said. “I don’t know if we made some nervous mistakes down the stretch or what. We pitched well and we got some clutch hits, but defensively we did a few uncharacteristically bad things.”
But a tightknit group dug deep to overcome the miscues and clinch the victory.
“We did get nervous the last couple of innings but when things get close, we get hungry,” Bradbury said. “We managed to keep the lead. Some teams would be scared but I think tight spots drive us more. It sounds crazy, but that is just how it works for us.”
In the sixth, Kingwood had runners on first and second with one out when Key got a come-backer and fired to second, where Baker made the turn and threw to first to complete a game-saving double play.
“I just reacted off instincts, fielded it, turned around and made a good throw, and Jack (Baker) was able to turn it quick and get the guy at first base,” Key said.
In the seventh inning, even though he was close to his 110-pitch limit for the game, Key put down the Kingwood batters in order and the celebration began.
“There was no way I was leaving the game,” he said. “I knew I had 10 pitches left going into the seventh inning, and with that last pitch I hit my pitch limit. That was it.”
How they got there
Ridge Point’s Road to ROund Rock
May 1: Ridge Point 7, Seven Lakes 1
May 2: Ridge Point 3, Seven Lakes 1
May 10: Ridge Point 6, Stratford 2
May 10: Ridge Point 2, Stratford 1
May 16: Cy-Fair 9, Ridge Point 6
May 17: Ridge Point 9, Cy-Fair 0
May 18: Ridge Point 5, Cy-Fair 4
May 23: Ridge Point 12, Atascocita 9
May 24: Ridge Point 7, Atascocita 6
May 30: Ridge Point 6, Kingwood 5 (8)
May 31: Ridge Point 3, Kingwood 2