Knights’ quest for district and beyond

McCallum Baseball sets sights on winning 10th straight district title but more importantly is what lies beyond

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2016 TIMBERWOLF TAKEDOWN. The Knights baseball faced the Timberwolves in a bi-district playoff series for the ages. The T-Wolves took game one, 1-0, on a walk-off bases-loaded walk. The Knights responded the following day, however, with a doubleheader sweep, featuring wins by then senior Jonah Smith in Game 2 and then junior Jesse Reed in Game 3. Mac dramatically won the series with a lifetime memory for then junior second baseman Ben Wangrin, who plated the only run of the game when he hit a two-out, bases-loaded single in the bottom of the seventh inning that brought home Mason Bryant and the bi-district series, 2 games to 1. Photo by Adrian Peña

Senior JK Smith was in the stands last time the McCallum baseball team won a playoff series. 

She was in eighth grade. 

Her brother, then senior Jonah Smith, helped bring home a victory in one of McCallum sports’ most memorable playoff comebacks. Since that 2016 series, despite being distinct champions in each of the following three years, they have yet to win another playoff series.

Last year was no exception. Despite having an early lead, McCallum suffered an upset loss and a first-round exit as their opponents celebrated beating a district champion first-seed team. It was Sunday, May 4, 2019 and the Knights were tied with the San Antonio Harlandale Indians to start the top of the eighth. The Knights had opened up scoring at the bottom of the second when Alec Worden walked to first and was driven home by Easton Salinas. The Knights scored a total of five runs in the first three innings and the final three runs came in the bottom of the eighth but it just wasn’t enough to overpower Harlandale’s eight runs scored in the top of the eighth. 

For the seniors, it was their last game in a Knight uniform and for all of the juniors and underclassmen, it fueled a drive for redemption.

SECOND YEAR, SECOND SET OF GOALS. Diego Barraz was the only freshman on varsity until he was joined by Andy Honea. Last year Barraz was a relief pitcher and played outfield or designated hitter. With his sophomore season upon him, he has jumped up into the No. 2 pitching role behind Izquierdo. “My goal is to make a big impact at the plate and on the mound,” Barraz said. “I want to pitch accurately and be consistent.” Photo by Grace Nugent.

“We are trying to bring home that 10th district championship,” sophomore pitcher/outfielder Diego Barraz said. “Coach [Brandon Grant] has always talked about state championship, but right now it’s trying to make it past that first round of playoffs.”

The narrative of the previous year was much of the same. The district champions McCallum Knights, boasting a record of 17-6, led by a core of college-bound seniors including current Longhorn pitcher Mason Bryant, waltzed into play Medina Valley who sat at 14-11-1. The Knights trailed 5-0, then rallied thanks to home runs by seniors Eric Worden and Cole Ross, but the comeback fell short. 

Heading into the 2020 season hopes are high as the Knights look to secure their 10th consecutive district championship. The coaching duo of Brandon Grant and Steve Searle take on their second year with the program after being hired from Lago Vista before the 2018-2019 school year. 

“We balance each other really well,” Grant said in the fourth episode of  The S-Word (the Shield podcast). “I am the wild off-the-wall one of the two. I call him my Buddha. I’d like to say he is the brains of the operation.”

GRANT’S GUSTO. During the Harlandale game, Grant’s presence conferred with individual players and directed the entire team. Coach Grant is known for being loud. “He is definitely the more spoken verbal one,” De La Garza said. “Having the balance of him and Searle makes for a great coaching duo.” Photo by Lindsey Plotkin.

The coaches obtained their 100th win together during the district matchup between McCallum and Reagan (now Northeast).

“Grant and Searle are great coaches,” Barraz  said. “They really inspire us to be greater players on and off the field.”

Along with the coaching, it is up to the players to put in the work to achieve their goals. The team returns nine of 10 starters, losing only veteran pitcher Ace Dietz and outfielder Alec Worden to graduation. The Knights had a relatively young infield last year, three sophomores and a freshman, but the group will benefit from the wisdom of last year’s experience. Shortstop Trinidad De La Garza, Jacob Masters and Easton Salinas all are players to watch according to Texas High School Baseball Magazine, along with De La Garza and Salinas both getting invited to Oklahoma to compete in the Summer Sophomore Sunbelt Series. 

“We were a young team last year with two freshmen and a lot of sophomores,” junior pitcher Yzmael Izquierdo said, “so now it’s our turn to step up and make big plays.”

HONEA FINDS HOME WITH VARSITY. After playing with both JV-B and JV-A, then freshman Andy Honea moved up to varsity for the last eight games of the 2019 season. Due to thinning at the first base position Honea moved up and joined Diego Barraz as the only two fish on varsity. Honea led the Knights with four RBI’s during the Harlandale playoff loss at Tiger Stadium. Photo by Lindsey Plotkin.

According to De La Garza due to Dietz’s loss, Izquierdo will step up to the No. 1 pitching spot with Barraz at two with senior outfielder Cole Davis and junior Ethan Vandament as a relief, but those roles are subject to change as the season goes on.

YZMAEL AT No. 1. Junior Yzmael Izquierdo will step up into the No. 1 pitching spot because of the loss of Ace Dietz to graduation. Photo by Grace Nugent.

Last year the team earned their district title with a nail-biting win over Dripping Springs.

“I remember going up there and coach Searle told me that I had a chance to win the game.” said De La Garza “I knew if it fell to me that I needed to step up and make the most of the opportunity. I went up there just looking for something to hit”

The game was tied with one’s at the bottom of the seventh when De La Garza stepped up to the plate. De La Garza singled on a 0-1 count deep into left field giving outfielder senior Jacob Castillo time to touch home plate.

 “I got a fastball inner half, and I brought Jacob in, and I remember everyone went crazy. [senior catcher] Noah [Cooley] jumped off the bench, and it just felt amazing”.

WALK-OFF WIN. To help secure the ninth consecutive district championship now junior Trinidad De La Garza hit a walk-off to beat Dripping Spring in the first game of the series. The Game was tied at 1-1 until De La Garza brought in Jacob Castillo and added one more win under the belt. Photo by Grace Nugent.

Barraz said that even though he didn’t make the game-winning hit, he will never forget the atmosphere of that high school baseball walk-off experience. 

“I have so many good memories from last season,” Grant said. “Winning district is always fun. The kids get to let loose and acknowledge what they achieved. We came back and cranked up the stereo and had a dance party, I and Searle even got in on it. But I feel like the terrible Fredericksburg ghost tour should be mentioned.” (To learn more about this you can go listen to The S-Word podcast). 

Every year the baseball team participates in an overnight three-day tournament in Fredericksburg.

I really like having fun and laughing with my team I’m looking forward to more of those moments next season except the whole historical part.”

— Diego Barraz

“I made the stupid decision to sign us up for something called the Fredricksburg ghost tours,” Grant said. “It was the worst thing I had ever put any of my teams through. We thought we were going to see haunted buildings and hospitals, and we have some kids who are really afraid of that stuff.”

It was actually a three-hour historical tour of Fredricksburg.

“It was terrible and so long,” Barraz said, “but secretly I really like having fun and laughing with my team I’m looking forward to more of those moments next season except the whole historical part.”

TRINI’S TRIUMPH. Junior Trinidad De La Garza made a big impact on varsity last year with the team’s highest batting average of .440 on 90 plate appearances. De La Garza was also invited to Arizona to tryout to be in the 2020 all American game. He practiced and played at the Chicago Cubs training complex followed by an award ceremony. The tryouts were visited by scouts from MLB teams and in three games De La Garza had two RBI’s two doubles and four assisted outs. Photo by Grace Nugent.

With tournaments against top-ranked teams fast approaching, talking about last year will soon be history just like the ghost tour. 

That’s because everyone will be focused on the 2020 season and the challenges it will present.

“I have high expectations for this group,” Grant said. “We have nine out of 10 starters returning so lots of experience.”

SOPHOMORE SUNBELT SALINAS. Easton Salians joined Jacob Masters and Trinidad De La Garza as the three knights recognized in Texas High School Baseball magazine’s top players to watch in 2020. Salinas and De La Garza were also invited to the sophomore sunbelt series in Oklahoma. “It was a really cool experience,” said De La Garza “it was really awesome to play with people from so many different schools”. Photo by Grace Nugent

According to Grant the statistic of never winning a playoff series since 2016 just creates a stronger drive in him and his players. Grant is looking to change the longstanding culture of McCallum baseball that a district title is the primary goal of the season. Under Grant and Searle the goal has changed, the new objective: making deep playoff runs.

Both Coach Grant and Searle have coached teams that have made deep playoff runs, and both coaches expressed just how significant for a team that is and how playoff baseball is different than other experiences. 

Captains Jacob Castillo and Cole Davis are expected to step up and lead the team. Grant said that Castillo is coming off a phenomenal summer with RBI  Austin and David bouncing back from a Taco Shack Bowl ACL tear.

CASTILLO AND RBI AUSTIN MAKE RBI WORLD SERIES. Senior Jacob Castillo and the senior Austin RBI team took to Florida to participate in the RBI world series.

“RBI gave me experience and taught me to play every game like it was my last,” Castillo said. “Also to have more fun with the boys because the end of high school baseball is coming so I gotta make it count.”

The first game of the season is Feb. 10 against Leander followed by another non-district matchup against Vista Ridge and then the famed alumni game that following Saturday. 

“People like Diego and Yzmael are going to have a lot of responsibility,” De La Garza said. “We need them to be strong, so we can all come and take what’s ours: victory.”