HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Odessa High faces another challenge in defending state champs

The Odessa High Bronchos have faced the end of their baseball season so many times over the past seven weeks, what’s one more challenge?

The magnitude, if not the difficulty, is a little greater this time. The Bronchos take on defending state champion Southlake Carroll in a one-game Class 6A regional semifinal playoff at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Arlington’s Globe Life Park.

For Odessa High coach Joshua Hulin, it’s just the latest biggest day of the season.

“The message that’s always conveyed by me to my team is that every day’s important,” Hulin said. “We treat an offseason day as the most important day of the season. The first day of practice, the first scrimmage, the first game all the way until we’re where we’re at right here, every day’s been important to us.

“Obviously, we’re extremely excited for this challenge in front of us, but the mindset is this is another important game and we’ve played a lot already.”

As the last fourth-place team remaining in the Class 6A playoff bracket, pitcher-third baseman Bobby Salinas said the Bronchos have shown they can handle the pressure of a must-win situation.

“We’re in the same position we’ve been in all year with our backs against the wall,” Salinas said. “It’s how we play our best ball. We’re going to go out there and execute our game.”

Odessa High (23-12-1) was 3-6 in District 2-6A after two losses to Amarillo Tascosa and in last place on a tiebreaker. The Bronchos won their next four and have won 10 of their last 14.

Since qualifying for the playoffs, Odessa High has overcome repeated obstacles to extend its season. In the opener of their bi-district series against District 1-6A champion El Paso Socorro, the Bronchos trailed 3-0 after four innings and 3-2 after six, then scored five runs in the seventh to win 7-3. They completed the sweep as Salinas pitched a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 victory in Game 2.

The area and regional quarterfinal playoffs saw Odessa High bounce back to win in three games after losing the series opener both times. Against San Angelo Central in the second round, the Bronchos won Game 2 6-5 after losing the lead in the sixth inning, while Salinas worked out of bases-loaded jams in the fifth, sixth and seventh to force Game 3. Nick Arenivas pitched a four-hit shutout in Game 3 as Odessa High advanced.

Last week against El Paso Montwood, the Bronchos were six outs away from elimination, but rallied with seven runs in the bottom of the sixth of Game 2 to win 11-6. Odessa High then exploded for 10 runs in the third inning of Game 3 to win 13-1.

Carroll (28-11) overcame a 1-6 start, going 13-1 to win the District 5-6A title. The Dragons have won 20 of their last 22 and 13 in a row, including all six games in the playoffs.

“They’re just another opponent,” Salinas said. “We’re deep in the playoffs, so everybody’s going to be good. We’re going to have to play our ball, do our best to go out there and win.”

Odessa High won a coin flip to play one game instead of a series.

“I wanted one game and they wanted a series,” Hulin said. “They’re obviously the defending state champs and they’re ranked really high (No. 9 in the final Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association poll) and they’re on a roll.

“I just wanted to try to negate the depth that they have and say, ‘Hey, let’s put our best nine on the field one game, put your best nine, and let’s decide it in two hours.’ We kind of felt that was our best chance, so we won a flip and we’re pumped about it. We’re going to do everything we can to go get that one.”

Hulin said the Bronchos have the tools to get the job done.

"I’m really excited about our team," he said. We’ve got some guys who can run and track stuff down in the outfield. We’ve got an infield that’s been solid for us all year.

"Pilar (Ramirez) behind the plate has called really good games all year. He’s been really good at calling pitches and blocking and being the leader behind the plate for us.

"We’re going to throw Cristian (Baeza) on the mound. He’s our No. 1 guy."

The chance to play at the home of the Texas Rangers, Hulin said, was too good to pass up, even though the game conflicts with Odessa High’s graduation. The team’s seniors — Arenivas, Baeza, Charles McClure, Jordan Munoz, Gibrian Pena and Salinas — received their diplomas in a special ceremony Thursday morning.

“It’s a really cool opportunity to get to play at a big-league park,” Hulin said. “When we had that presented to us, of course we jumped all over it.”

Salinas said it’s just another situation where the Bronchos can’t allow themselves to be overwhelmed.

“It’s a big field, a big venue,” he said. “It’s a major league ballpark, so that’s pretty cool. But nothing changes. The field’s the same size. We’re going to go out there and play our ball.”