HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Bronchos lean on experience as playoff run continues

The Odessa High Bronchos find themselves in the third round of the Class 6A baseball playoffs for the second consecutive season.

The Bronchos look to take the next step this weekend when they take on El Paso Montwood in a regional quarterfinal series at Fort Stockton High School. Game 1 is scheduled for 7 tonight with Game 2 at 11 a.m. Saturday. Game 3, if necessary, will follow.

2018 saw the Bronchos end a three-year string of frustrating exits in the bi-district round. Now, they’re looking to take advantage of the lessons learned from that experience.

“We’ve had really good leadership in this program for a long time,” Odessa High coach Joshua Hulin said. “I think when we made the playoffs for the first time five years ago, we had great leadership. Those guys kind of passed down the work ethic and the expectation.

“Last year, we finally broke through winning a playoff series, but I think it was kind of in the making from years past. The leadership this year has done the exact same thing the guys have done in the past. They’ve worked hard. They show up every day. They have a great attitude. That’s probably the biggest thing our young guys have learned, just have a great attitude and give great effort.”

This season’s Odessa High team has five returning starters in shortstop Gibrian Pena, center fielder Charles McClure, designated hitter Hervey Nieto and pitcher-infielders Cristian Baeza and Bobby Salinas to go along with first baseman Jordan Munoz, a backup last year who moved into the lineup. They’ve helped get the Bronchos’ newcomers acclimated to the pressure that comes with the playoffs.

“I guess you could say we pass down the ideas of being mentally strong and also play as a team, just work together as a team to get the win,” Baeza said.

Left fielder Zach Attaway, who joined catcher Pilar Ramirez, second baseman Gabriel Avila and right fielder Andrei Garcia in filling out the lineup this spring, said the older group has helped out a lot.

“For a guy who wasn’t in the lineup, they help me get through it, get better and work on my mindset to get a starting spot,” said Attaway, who saw limited action in last year’s playoff run as a courtesy runner. “The mindset passes down to us.”

And having been successful in the first two rounds this year, Attaway said, makes it easier to prepare for this week’s series.

“We’ve just got to have a lot more confidence because that’s all we’ve had this whole year, confidence at the plate, confidence on defense,” said Attaway, who gloved the final out last week as the Bronchos rallied from a Game 1 loss to defeat San Angelo Central in the area round. “We have a bunch of confidence in our pitchers and back them up.”

The key, Hulin said, has been to keep the focus as narrow as possible, from winning each pitch to winning each at bat to winning each half inning.

“I’m not good enough to look at a big picture,” Hulin said. “I’m so narrow-minded and such a creature that can’t do multiple things at one time that all I can do is think about what’s in front of us.

“(Tuesday), we said the only thing in front of us was to have a good practice. (Wednesday), we needed another good practice. We’ve got one game on Friday that we’re going to put all our effort and energy into and that’s all we can think about.”

The series matches teams that finished fourth in their respective districts and have, on paper at least, pulled off a pair of upsets to get this far. Montwood (22-17) swept District 2-6A champion Midland High in bi-district, then defeated Hurst Bell in three games in the area round after winning that series opener in 11 innings. Odessa High (21-11-1) swept District 1-6A champion El Paso Socorro in the first round before bouncing back to win twice on Saturday against Central.

“I think both teams kind of expected to be here,” Hulin said. “I don’t think either one, us or Montwood, looked at the big picture going into the playoffs and said, ‘hey, we’re playing a 1 seed, we’re supposed to lose.’

“I think both of us just said, ‘let’s go win Game 1.’ And after we won Game 1, we said, ‘let’s go win Game 2.’ We just kind of took that into the second week of the playoffs. We both kind of expected to be here. We make big things small things. All our focus is on Game 1 against Montwood. That’s what we’ve been doing all year and that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

Baeza said the Bronchos know they can’t take anything for granted against the Rams.

“We can’t underestimate our opponent, Montwood, because they’re a very scrappy team,” he said. “We’ve got to go out and play as scrappy, play even more scrappy, and come out with the win.

“I believe we can. We’re going to surprise people and keep winning and see how far we can go.”