ARLINGTON—McKinney Christian head baseball coach Brady James wanted a youthful Mustang squad to approach this week's TAPPS Division III state tournament as a learning opportunity.
McKinney Christian nearly turned that opportunity into the program's first-ever state championship, but one costly inning proved too much to overcome in Tuesday's state final against Cypress Christian.
What was a four-run lead succumbed to a seven-run fifth inning by the Warriors, who got the better of the Mustangs 10-7 from the University of Texas at Arlington's Clay Gould Ballpark in the Div. III final. McKinney Christian was making its second-ever appearance at the state tournament, earning a runner-up finish two years after a semifinal trip in 2021.
"It's awesome. I couldn't be more proud of this group of guys," James said. "You're in the state championship game, good teams find a way to win and Houston Cypress is a heck of a ball club."
It wasn't a stage James had visions of for his team at the start of the season, given the Mustangs' youth with just one senior on the roster. But a strong run through district play prefaced a resilient postseason for McKinney Christian, which made good on its return to the state tournament with a late-game rally in Monday's semifinal against Lake Country Christian for a 4-2 victory.
That belief carried over into the start of Tuesday's state final with the Mustangs jumping out to a 5-1 lead through two innings. McKinney Christian tallied three hits in the first inning alone, building a 1-0 edge off an RBI single from junior Caden Brown before striking for four more runs in the second stanza. Junior Connor Jarzombek doubled in a run for a 2-1 lead, sophomore John Clark drew a bases-loaded walk, sophomore Judd Witte singled in another run off a line drive and senior Nate McMahon plated a run with a sacrifice fly.
"To come out and start fast like that, with a lot of energy and a lot of life, it's exactly what we've been preaching. I was so proud of how our guys started this one," James said.
In the process, McKinney Christian managed to chase Cypress starter Andrew Mestayer, but the Warriors got a timely lift on the mound from Warren Haudek. He pitched the final six innings for Cypress and allowed just one earned run on five hits.
The Mustangs, in turn, got 4.1 innings out of sophomore Marc Jensen. He allowed one run on four hits through four frames, but Cypress caught fire at the plate in the fifth — firing off four consecutive hits off the McKinney Christian starter to pull within 6-5 and force a pitching change.
"I felt like we were in control and then the wheels started to fall off," James said. "It was one base hit at a time and one walk at a time. Baseball can be weird sometimes and it got real weird for them that inning. That was a big hurdle to try and overcome."
No matter what buttons the Mustangs tried to push, the Warriors put one ball after another in play. Cypress totaled seven runs on six consecutive hits with two walks drawn and another batter hit by a pitch as part of a stretch where nine straight batters reached base opposite three different McKinney Christian pitchers.
"I believed in the guys we ran out there and felt like they'd give us a shot to win," James said. "Sometimes that's just baseball. Sometimes you hit balls right at guys and other times they just find holes."
It was the only crooked number on Cypress' side of the scoreboard, as the Mustangs allowed either one or zero runs in the other six innings on Tuesday. But that fifth inning forced a lofty game of catch-up for McKinney Christian, which trailed by as many as four runs at 10-6 before plating a run in the bottom of the sixth inning off a sacrifice fly from Witte.
Junior Jax Marshall, whose two-run triple in the seventh inning lifted the Mustangs to Monday's state semifinal win, added two hits and three runs in Tuesday's championship game, while Clark and McMahon had two-hit outings as well. Marshall, McMahon, Jarzombek and Clark were all named to the all-tournament team following the 17-14 Mustangs' best-ever finish at state.
"It's a learning opportunity. We've got to learn how to finish games," James said. "We've come back a few times, but we've got to learn how to better play with a lead and get that shut-down inning. If we learn from this experience, I feel like there's a lot of growth to be had."
Check out photos from McKinney Christian baseball's state title game vs. Cypress Christian
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