By MIKE PHILLIPS / Corsicana Sun
It’s always the same goal at Navarro: The College World Series in Junction, Colorado.
That hasn’t changed.
But this year’s Bulldog team may be a little hungrier, may be a little more confident, and may just be the first to get there since 2013.
The Bulldogs have had some tremendous teams since the ’13 team made it to Junction, but have fallen short in the Region XIV Tournament over the past four years.
The difference with the players who return from last year is the way their season ended.
It was a remarkable and inspiring run to the finals of the region tournament in Grand Prairie, just a step away from Junction — a run that began after the Bulldogs lost their second game, forcing them to fight back through the loser’s bracket in a double-elimination marathon.
They almost made it, but clearly they simply ran out of pitchers, and fell to San Jacinto, which went on to the CWS and played for the title against national champion Chipola.
“I didn’t mourn over it because we gave it everything we had,” said Beau Orlando, who will move from second base to catcher this season. “We just ran out of gas.”
Simply put, the Dawgs were dawg-tired and didn’t have enough fresh arms to get past San Jac, which cruised in the winner’s bracket and had plenty of pitching left on the final day of the four-day tournament.
“We were exhausted and just out of pitching,” said returning left-handed starter Paul Dickens, who will be one of Navarro’s big arms this season. “Losing like that, it drives us and motivates us this year. Hopefully, we win our conference and win that second round game (and stay in the winner’s bracket).
“We’ve got a chance to be better because of the starting pitching,” he said. “We didn’t have as much depth last year.”
If there is a key word to the 2018 Bulldogs, it’s depth.
Coach Matt ‘Pudge’ Podjenski went out and added arms and has put together another strong lineup to make a run.
“I think we’re swinging the bats real well, and we’re playing good defense and we have more pitching depth this year, ”Podjenski said. “I think we’re solid in all three areas. I think we have some depth to get us where we want to go.”
Dickens and Orlando are two of the big pieces who return along with outfielder Josh Ragan and closer Asher Cook.
Podjenski added TCU shortstop Esteban Cardoza-Oquendo recently and he’ll bring a big glove and leadership and add to a mix of players who already believe they can win the region title. Brady Mehl, a starter is back and Podjenski
Johnny Panatex and Brady Mehl, a tall (6-9) right-handed starter is back, and Podjenski believes this could be his year.
“I think Brady is really going to take off this year,” he said.
Podjenski is also high on freshman Austin Faith, a right-hander from Houston who could be the ace of the staff and give the Dawgs a lethal righty-lefty 1-2 punch with Dickens.
“He has definitely asserted himself to be that,” Podjenski, who definitely has faith in Austin.
Dickens went 3-2 with a 3.37 ERA and struck out 58 in 45 innings last season and he dominated opponents in the fall with a 0.00 ERA in 10 innings of work, striking out a dozen batters without giving up an earned run in three starts. Mehl also had a strong fall, striking out five in five innings of work, and Cole Wesneski, a freshman right-hander from Houston, and Colin Storm, a right-handed freshman from Lewisville, are expected to be a big part of this year’s pitching staff.
One of the biggest factors will be Cook, who returns as the team’s closer. His father, Dennis Cook, was an outstanding relief pitcher in the majors and the best situational lefty in the last ’90s in baseball. Cook went 1-1 and had 11 saves last year and struck out 35 in 33 innings.
Cook will anchor a bullpen that returns Johnny Panatex, who should make the pen a strength and might well be the difference down the stretch.
“I think this group of sophomores is really close,” Cook said, “We’re real focused on this goal (getting to the CWS). We want it pretty bad.”
Cook loves Navarro’s lineup — as long as he doesn’t have to face it.
“I hate pitching to our starting nine,” he said. “They are very scrappy.”
Orlando hit .331 last year and drove in 21 runs and had an .852 OPS and .451 OBP. He hit .351 in the fall and is a natural leader at the plate — and behind it, where he will take over where Brandon Williams left off as an in-charge force for the Bulldogs.
Ragan, an outfielder, is coming off a big season. He hit .313 with five homers and a .921 OPS. He scored 41 runs while driving in 47. Almost half his hits (24 of 56) went for extra bases, and he kept it up when hit .418 in the fall with two homers, two triples and 17 RBI and 16 runs in 21 games.
Noah Menchaca, who will move from shortstop to third base, is another big bat in the lineup. He hit seven homers, scored 31 runs and drove in 23.
The Bulldogs have two of Corsicana’s finest in shortstop Layton Wolver, an incredible infielder with a good bat and plenty of speed who suffered an arm injury and was red-shirted last year, and Corbin Hall, a tough and savvy right-handed pitcher who also can play second base.
“I really like our club,” Podjenski said. “We have good chemistry. They compete, and we’ve got some good leadership guys.”
The Bulldogs are usually ranked in the Top 25 n the preseason polls, but surprisingly missed the cut this year.
“That’s fine,” Podjenski said. “I would rather be a sleeper early.”
The Bulldogs will have a chance to turn heads early because they open Friday at home against No. 24 Weatherford and then play at Weatherford Saturday.
They play Weatherford four times, No. 19 Grayson twice and No. 8 McLennan three times, facing nationally-ranked teams in nine of their first 13 games.
“We have some games early in the year against ranked teams, and if we can win them it will give us confidence and we can just take off from there,” Podjenski said. “That’s what I see happening.”