Knights stick together, look ahead

Just 11 games into young season, baseball team sees its quest for a 10th straight district title end before it starts

UNFINISHED%3A+The+photo+assignment+calendar+in+the+journalism+room+sits+unattended%2C+exactly+the+way+the+photo+editors+left+it+on+March+12.+It+has+become+a+record+of+all+the+games+that+were+meant+to+be+played+and+covered+and+a+reminder+of+the+year+that+could+have+been.+Photo+by+Dave+Winter.+

Dave Winter

UNFINISHED: The photo assignment calendar in the journalism room sits unattended, exactly the way the photo editors left it on March 12. It has become a record of all the games that were meant to be played and covered and a reminder of the year that could have been. Photo by Dave Winter.

Ellen Fox and Grace Nugent

What is a team sport supposed to do when the team can’t assemble?

This is a question that athletic programs everywhere have had to ask in the face of the coronavirus. McCallum baseball is no different. When the jerseys are cast aside, the post-game Chick-fil-A trips stop and “Party in the USA” is no longer screamed in celebration, it’s hard not to think about the season that could have been.

I think that’s kind of our team concept: you better be getting your work in because you owe it to the other guys and because if you don’t someone is going to pass you up.”

— head coach Brandon Grant

All spring sports teams have had to face a season cut short, but baseball suffered more than most. Their path pre-coronavirus had been one that was anticipated to end in the regional playoffs, and when COVID-19 hit town, the team was just about to start district play in search of a 10th consecutive district title.

On March 12, the day before the first COVID-19 case was detected in Austin, the team played and won what would be their last game of the season against nationally ranked College Station. Now, with the season lost and no more games to be played, they are navigating what it means to be a team when you can’t be together on the same field. Varsity head coach Brandon Grant explains how this is playing out for the team.

“Part of baseball season, what makes everything a family, is how much of a grind it is physically and mentally,” Grant said. “The game situations are what fosters those relationships with the kids. With the virus the way it is, our kids can’t get out and throw together; they can’t really do anything together.”

Though it’s tough to stay motivated and connected without having a season to look forward to, Grant says that the team has found a way to maintain a sense of both.

It’s hard to still see the team environment, but I think everybody knows that everybody is getting some form of individual work in themselves,” Grant said.

“They know they owe it to their teammates to be doing something as well. … I think that’s kind of our team concept: you better be getting your work in because you owe it to the other guys and because if you don’t someone is going to pass you up.”

Though there isn’t much in the near future for the team to look forward to, they still savor the 6-1 victory over College Station.

ENDING WITH A BANG: Coach Grant leads his team in the “Yes chant” to celebrate Mac’s 6-1 win over nationally ranked College Station on March 12 in what would be the final game of the season. The Cougars were state champions in 2014 and boasted two D1-bound pitchers, but the Knights didn’t let their opponent’s pedigree intimidate them. Behind a “monster” pitching effort by junior Fabian Castillo and multiple-hit games by Trini de La Garza and Easton Salinas, the Knights won the game handily. “I was very impressed with Fabian stepping up and pulling us through,” De La Garza said. “[It was] one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen.” Photo by Grace Nugent. (Grace Nugent)

“[College Station has] a very high caliber program, and for them to roll out their two best arms against us was an insane challenge for that group,” Grant said.

There were several standout players in the game. Senior Marc Juarez keyed a three-run fourth inning with a line drive single that drove in two runs. Junior Trini De La Garza went 4-for-4, and junior Easton Salinas, 3-for-4. Junior Connor Boggs belted a solo home run. Senior Cole Davis threw two shutout inning to start the game.

I was very impressed with Fabian stepping up. [It was] one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen.”

— junior shortstop Trini De La Garza

While these Knights all contributed to the victory, Grant says that one senior player stood out the most in that game.

“To see Fabian Castillo go out there and just battle … he’s been tested before, but not like that, ever,” Grant said. “To work through that lineup with the efficiency that he did, especially after his first pitch went 400 feet over the fence, to bounce back and handle that lineup of kids that’ll be playing college baseball in a couple of years [was great].”

Castillo pitched five innings in relief of Davis. After giving up a home run to the first batter he faced, he threw shutout ball, allowing only one hit and walking no one with two strikeouts.

“I was very impressed with Fabian stepping up,” De La Garza said. “[It was] one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen.”

Winning this game was big in the moment. Little did the Knights (7-3-1) know that it would be their last game of the season and the last high school game ever for the team’s seniors. The victory against a highly respected out-of-district opponent with a playoff pedigree now serves as an indicator of where the baseball program could have gone had the season played out.

“That’s what we’ve been telling the kids for years,” Grant said. “We are not Austin ISD, in the sense of what AISD baseball represents: winning the district, struggling in the playoffs. That should not be us; that can’t be us in the future, so we look to separate ourselves from that stigma,” Grant said.

We all got along so well; the energy was unforgettable on and off the field. I’m going to miss when we would win home games and then all of the boys would hang after.”

— senior outfielder Jacob Castillo

“You know, it’s all speculation, but I think we were gonna compete for another district title no question. … There’s no other teams that throw talent around like College Station did, and you know we took their No 1 and No. 2 [pitchers] to work. High hopes for what it was gonna be, and I think this team was gonna be an easy two, three rounds deep playoff team and probably a 10th district title in a row.”

Departing senior Jay Castillo expressed that winning the games won’t be the only thing that will be missed.

“I love all the memories we made together,” he said. “We all got along so well; the energy was unforgettable on and off the field. I’m going to miss when we would win home games and then all of the boys would hang after.”

Thanks to COVID-19, this year’s season is over. The seniors will be sorely missed, but the promise and the talent that this year’s team demonstrated over the 11 games they were able to play has prompted excitement and anticipation for next year for the players who will return to finish what the 2020 team started.

“When I took the job here and started working with those guys, I knew that the sophomore class then was something special,” Grant said.

“Those guys will be seniors next year, and while it’s heartbreaking to lose our seniors from this year, Cole Davis, Jay Castillo, all of them, there is a little bit of hope for next year because that class is huge and loaded with stars,” Grant said.

“Yes, I have very high expectations for next year’s group. … It’ll hurt losing a couple of those seniors, but I think the freshman and sophomores are ready to step up and fill those spots. We’re really excited about what’s coming back; that’s the thing to look forward to. … I don’t think we’ll miss a beat.”