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Bulldog baseball prepared for wide-open Region XIV Tourney

By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Sun  –

Pay no attention to the standings in the Region XIV race.

Again, pay no attention to the standings in the Region XIV race.

That’s what Navarro Coach Whoa Dill and his players know all too well as they head into the Region XIV Tournament this weekend.

Forget Navarro’s 18-10 record in the region. Take a look at what the Bulldogs have done lately. They’ve won 11 of their last 13 and look better all over the diamond — at the plate, on the mound and in the field.

“It’s all about getting hot at the right time,” said Dill, whose team has won two of the last three region titles. “I would rather be hot late than early. You have your ups and downs, but the last three weeks we’ve played pretty well.”

Navarro finished second in the East Zone and enters as a No. 2 seed, but the Bulldogs just swept Paris, the top seed from the East, and if you look at how this team plays against the best competition, it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of confidence flying around Navarro.

The Bulldogs went 13-5 against the top teams in the East — Paris, Angelina and Panola — but struggled against lowly Northeast, which won five of six from Navarro, but wasn’t good enough to earn a berth in the region tournament.

“Baseball is a weird game,” said Dill. “We’re going into (the tournament) and we could be two and (eliminated) or we might win four in a row. This year it’s wide open. Usually there are three or four teams with a chance to win it, but this year there are eight teams that could win it. It’s the most wide open tournament we’ve ever had. Whoever gets hot at the right time will win it.”

Dill likes his team. It may be the youngest he has ever had, but he believes his guys can win the title and earn a trip back to the national tournament, where the Bulldogs won it all in 2011 and fell just short a year ago.

All three of his starting pitchers made the all-region team and J.D. Hammer and Corsicana grad Holden Grounds earned first-team honors. Lefty Jorge Flores (3-5, 2.98 ERA), who threw a no-hitter this year, was named to the second team. Hammer (5-1, 1.37 ERA) will start the opener against Blinn at 10:00 a.m. Saturday.

“We’re going in with a winning streak,” Hammer said. “The big thing is we’re starting to mature as a team. Everyone is starting to figure out where they fit in on the team.”

Dill hasn’t decided on his Game 2 starter, but Grounds, who is one of the region leaders in strikeouts (77 Ks in 77 1/3 innings) is coming off a 2-0 shutout over Paris. All three starters can deliver.

“I like our chances with our three starters,” Dill said.

It’s been a winding road to get here, but the Bulldogs know what it takes to win.

Dill said one reason for the uneven season was youth. He said it took his freshmen some time to adjust to the speed of the game, but as they grew in experience the wins starting coming. But even though Navarro is young, Dill believes his players can make a run in the tournament and get back to the nationals.

“Last year we had a lot of sophomore and this year we’re really young,” Dill said. “But I think our pitching is just as good. Our first three pitchers have pitched real well, and if there is a difference it is at closer, but Heath Donica has come on this year and taken over that role.”

Donica, a Corsicana grad, has emerged and has six saves in six save opportunities. Navarro lives on pitching and defense and this year’s fielders have been outstanding.

“I think defensively all around we’re about as good as we were last year,” Dill said. “The left side of our infield is better defensively.”

The left side, which consists of shortstop Mason Hesse, who is hitting .289, and third baseman Grayson Lewis, who is batting .306 and leads the team with 32 runs, can change a game with their gloves or their bats in a lineup that can be dangerous from the top to the bottom.

Outfielder Sam McDonnell, who was named to the all-region first team, leads Navarro with a .326 batting average and 24 RBI’s, and Luke Hoyl, who coming off some clutch hits in the Paris series last weekend, is hitting .297 while catcher Jovan Hernandez comes into the tournament batting .296.

Lewis said Navarro is ready.

“All season we had so much potential to be a great team,” Lewis said. “I could see it all year. Our pitching is so good and our defense is good. We’re going into the (tournament) with confidence.”

Dill said part of wining in the region tournament comes with the right approach.

“I don’t coach any differently. We don’t practice any differently. You can’t change anything,” he said.

One thing definitely hasn’t changed.

“Everybody will be coming after us,” Dill said. “We’ve won it two of the last three years. They have to understand people will be coming after us.”