In hindsight, the McKinney Christian baseball team felt like it was at least or year or two away from contending for a return to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools state tournament.
The Mustangs made their first-ever trip to the final four in 2021 but have since graduated the majority of that roster. Only four players from that history-making squad suited up for McKinney Christian this year as part of a group mostly comprised of sophomores and juniors with just one senior.
And yet, the Mustangs suddenly find themselves a mere two wins away from hoisting a state title for the first time in program history.
McKinney Christian is back in the TAPPS state tournament, scheduled to take the field at 4 p.m. Monday from the University of Texas at Arlington for a meeting against Lake Country Christian in a Division III semifinal.
"That roster is long gone from '21 and we're still relatively young this year," said Brady James, McKinney Christian head coach. "We had kind of circled the 2024 season as one that could include a real deep playoff run, but we knew we had guys this year to where if we played well at the right times then good things could happen."
It took time for the Mustangs to realize that potential, partly due to a challenging non-district schedule that contributed to a 4-6 start to the year. James didn't pull any punches in scheduling McKinney Christian against some of the top private school teams in the area. But in taking lumps against the likes of Prestonwood Christian and Grapevine Faith, the Mustangs conjured a sharper product in time for district play.
James pointed to a pair of wins over Dallas Christian on April 11-14 as harbingers of what was to come, as the Mustangs went on to capture a district championship with a 10-2 record. McKinney Christian closed league play on a five-game winning streak that included a pair of a 1-0 victories that have become a familiar refrain for the team during the postseason.
The Mustangs sport a 7-1 record in games decided by two runs or less this season, and they've operated within that zone all throughout the playoffs. McKinney Christian edged Lubbock-Trinity Christian in the first round, 3-2, and blanked district rival Brook Hill, 2-0, in the regional round held Monday.
"That was a crazy night. We had about an hour-and-20-minute weather delay in the bottom of the fifth," James said of Monday's win. "We laid low for a while in Grand Saline's cafeteria and just waited it out. We went back out there, and we've got some guys who are definitely energy-givers.
"We had a lot of fun in those last three innings and it was very exciting. We didn't think we'd be in that spot at the beginning of the season, so they were relishing every moment."
As the delay prolonged, James said kids stayed busy every which way from shadow-boxing to perusing social media. The Mustangs didn't miss a beat when play resumed, furthering a maturity that James has noticed throughout the postseason.
"I was talking to someone the other day about a mental toughness within our squad that I equate to maturity," James said. "Even though we're mostly sophomores and juniors, we've found a way to mature and grow up a little bit. I think our schedule helped because these guys haven't been gifted anything."
James lauded junior Connor Jarzombek, who pitched in both the team's prior two playoff games, and sophomore Marc Jensen for their work on the mound, as well as junior Jax Marshall, a starter from the 2021 squad who's verbally committed to Houston. Marshall scored both runs in the Mustangs' 2-0 win over Brook Hill.
James envisions the contributions running the gamut as McKinney Christian prepares for a return to the state semifinals.
"It's all hands on deck and whatever it takes on Monday. If we're fortunate, we'll figure out Tuesday on either Monday night or Tuesday morning," James said.
A state final berth would come on less than 24 hours following the semifinal's conclusion, with the 3A title game set for 1 p.m. Tuesday in Arlington. The Mustangs' pursuit will hinge on getting past a surging Lake Country team that has won two playoff games of its own despite a third-place finish in its district.
While Monday's game presents a momentous opportunity for McKinney Christian, James wants his players to approach the week as a learning experience. The Mustangs will graduate just one senior from this year's group, that being Nate McMahon, and the prospect of returning everyone else could signal bright pastures ahead for McKinney Christian.
But why not make the most of the present?
"If we can approach this as a learning opportunity, then I think there's definitely going to be some growth from this team to next year's team, regardless of what happens Monday. Win or lose, it's an awesome learning opportunity for these guys," James said.
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