High School Baseball

Young Cougars proving resilient in best run since 2014

By Dennis Silva II, Sports Editor
Posted 5/12/21

During the fall, Cinco Ranch’s baseball team could not practice baseball. The Cougars’ field was being renovated, so weekly offseason workouts consisted of two days in the weight room, another day of arm care, a day of speed/agility work, and Thursdays spent hitting fungoes on the turf football practice field.

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High School Baseball

Young Cougars proving resilient in best run since 2014

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During the fall, Cinco Ranch’s baseball team could not practice baseball. The Cougars’ field was being renovated, so weekly offseason workouts consisted of two days in the weight room, another day of arm care, a day of speed/agility work, and Thursdays spent hitting fungoes on the turf football practice field.

It made for a difficult circumstance as third-year head coach Brett Wallace attempted to rebuild a team that graduated 15 seniors from the 2020 season, which was cut short after 15 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was not an ideal fall,” Wallace said. “It was a grind.”

So when Cinco Ranch advanced to the area playoffs for the first time since 2014 last week—doing so in dramatic, emotional fashion, rallying from a 6-0 fourth-inning deficit to win 7-6 in seven innings over favored Ridge Point—it was a testament to the resilience, pride and grit of a club that starts three sophomores, one freshman, and only four seniors in its lineup.

“Confidence-wise, being such a young team, a win like that shows us how great we really are and what we can accomplish when we work together,” junior pitcher Zachary Royse said.

Cinco Ranch (18-11-2) plays Cy-Fair (25-8) in a one-game area playoff at 7 p.m. Friday at Cy-Fair High.

“We’re ready for the next game, the next round,” senior leadoff hitter and pitcher Clayton Keeling said. “We’re all excited to get back to practice and get back to the next. I think that last game is in the past and we’re only ready and focused on what’s in the future.”

That future gets brighter each game, thanks to the rapid maturation of a promising ballclub.

The Cougars are reaping the benefits from a rough early non-district schedule in which opponents combined for a .600 win percentage. Cinco Ranch played in seven games decided by two or fewer runs, winning four.

“The tough schedule prepared us for the possibility to make a postseason run,” Royse said. “A lot of our guys are sophomores, and even some freshmen mixed in there, too. They have had their first varsity games this season, so our schedule pushed us to work through some challenges, preparing us to pull through games like (Ridge Point).”

In an 8-7 loss to Katy to start the second round of district play, Keeling popped up to the catcher with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning. Jump ahead to last week against Ridge Point, and Keeling, given the same situation, was poised and disciplined in drawing a walk to bring in the winning run.

“It’s having that experience of being in that big moment, how to handle that (at-bat), and knowing to trust himself and make the pitcher come to him instead of being too anxious,” Wallace said. “They’ll just keep learning from these experiences and keep getting better.”

Wallace had a ton of questions about his team coming into the season, and a fall offseason without the use of a baseball field didn’t exactly help. The fact he didn’t have a thorough evaluation of returning players due to the abbreviated 2020 season further stunted the progress of young talent that was considerable, but raw.

Wallace knew who his starting outfielders and starting catcher would be, but had concerns everywhere else, especially pitching.

None of Cinco Ranch’s projected top three pitchers have thrown an inning this season. Junior Blake Hansen had Tommy John surgery in the fall, junior Aidan Carnahan had a stress fracture with two screws put into his elbow in the fall, and sophomore Gavin Rutherford has been plagued by elbow issues all season.

But the Cougars found a way. ‘Development,’ in all aspects of the game, mental and physical, has been the buzzword around the program.

Keeling emerged as an invaluable leader whose positive demeanor is infectious. Hansen always seems to get the big hit when needed. It’s no surprise that those two are team captains.

Rutherford has been a revelation with four home runs, including the big solo shot in the seventh against Ridge Point to bring the Cougars within a run.

Royse has stepped up on the mound. He throws up to 92 miles per hour and has shown tremendous composure.

“It was a big honor that Coach Wallace trusted me with the ball on the bump to go out there and fill it up on the mound,” said Royse, who earned the start against Ridge Point. “I worked hard in the offseason and preseason to be prepared for this exact moment.”

The Cougars’ plate discipline has been a strength all season, impressive of a young team. It’s been a M.O. of Wallace’s to consistently put in work on the team’s hitting approach, while assistant Kel Shannon has done an admirable job building the team’s pitching depth.

“We’re making plays under pressure and developing that clutch mentality, both at the plate and on defense,” Keeling said. “We keep each other in check and accountable, and that hard work and trust we’ve established, the patience and confidence we have, has helped develop us into a team of faith.”

It’s also a team of positive energy, vibes and optimism. It showed against Ridge Point.

“I rallied them up as soon as they came off the field (in the fourth inning) and told them we averaged eight runs or more in the second half of district (play), so six (runs) was nothing,” Wallace said. “Just start chipping away.”

The Cougars immediately scored three runs in the bottom half of the fourth to cut their deficit in half. They added another run in the fifth.

Rutherford’s homer to lead off the seventh brought Cinco Ranch within 6-5. A double play, where a Cougar baserunner was called for runner’s interference at second base, could have stymied hope and momentum. But the Cougars responded with singles from senior Tyler Duron and sophomore Rainer Castillo. Duron scored from first on an error to tie the game.

“These kids don’t know the word ‘quit,’” Wallace said. “They just keep fighting and plugging away.”

And, finally, Keeling, the eighth batter of the inning, drew four balls, the last a wild pitch that scored sophomore courtesy runner Torin Green and sent the home crowd into a deliriously happy frenzy.

“The love and faith we have for each other, we don’t want to stop playing,” Keeling said. “We want to keep this going. We’re having so much fun right now.”

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