Zion Stephens Ridge Point

Ridge Point second baseman Zion Stephens prepares to swing at a pitch during a Region III-6A final against Strake Jesuit on June 3. The Panthers lost to eventual state champion Southlake Carroll in the Class 6A state semifinals last Friday. (Photo by Landan Kuhlmann)

It was a historic season in many ways for the Ridge Point Panthers’ baseball team, but ultimately the team fell short of its goal of a state title in Round Rock last week.

The Panthers dropped a 6-1 decision to the eventual state champion Southlake Carroll Dragons last Friday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock in the Class 6A state semifinals, and were denied the chance to play for their first state championship in the process.

It is the second straight trip to Round Rock during which Panthers have lost to Southlake Carroll, after also falling to the Dragons in the 2019 state championship game.

“We just got beat,” head coach Clinton Welch said. “Plain and simple.”

The semifinal loss brought an end to the high school careers of 10 Ridge Point seniors who played their last game in purple and white on Friday. It was a tumultuous one for a group that includes starting pitcher Hunter Nichols and Texas A&M commit Justin Vossos, a group that Welch said led by example and held the team together despite high school careers that saw them experience extreme lows (COVID-19-shortened 2020 campaign) along with the high of reaching Round Rock for the second time in program history.

“The seniors were a special group.  We really enjoyed going out to practice each day with this team,” Welch said. “Going to state their senior year will be a lifelong memory.  Many guys on this team will still be (the) best of friends 40 years from now – the bond doesn't go away.”

Ridge Point struggled to find traction all game against Southlake Carroll starter Griffin Herring, who is committed to LSU and Welch said had not allowed a run in his previous 55 innings. The Panthers mustered just five total hits and weren’t able to push a run across until the seventh inning in their final at-bat of the season thanks to an RBI double by junior first baseman Travis Vlasek, who had two hits in the game.

Vlasek was named to the all-tournament team for his performance in the game. Kellen Gradisar led the Panthers on the mound with five strikeouts in five innings of work.

“We were going to have to hold them to one or less runs to win,” Welch said. ”He beat us.”

And though they fell short of the ultimate goal of winning a state championship, Welch knows that making it to Round Rock is nothing to sneeze at – especially coming out of Region III. Ridge Point took out top-ranked Katy Tompkins in the regional quarterfinals on their way to a Region III-6A crown, as well as defending regional champion Strake Jesuit en route to a final record of 35-6.

What’s more, the Panthers look to be set for another run next season. They will likely return starting pitchers Kellen Gradisar and Jack McKernan as well as catcher JJ Kennett – who has given a verbal commitment to Dallas Baptist University – and Vlasek.

“Winning our region and getting to state is a tough, challenging endeavor,” Welch said. “Once you get there, winning state against three great teams is just as difficult. The coaches tip our caps to our players.  It was an incredible playoff run.”

One of the indelible memories, Welch said, will be seeing his young men dogpile after clinching the trip to the state tournament and seeing the fruits of the work they had put in. Other than Vossos, who was on the 2019 team that made it to the Class 6A state final, no player on the roster had experienced the feeling of being among the state’s final four.

They have now, Welch said, and he will never forget that scene.

“Dreams, and lofty goals, can happen,” he said. “‘Get in and get hot’ is something they hear in this program.  They certainly did that.”

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