HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL: Odessa High in familiar spot entering playoffs

The Odessa High Bronchos find themselves in almost the same position they were in a year ago entering the Class 6A baseball playoffs.

Odessa High returns to postseason play when the Bronchos (17-10-1) take on the El Paso Socorro Bulldogs (21-10-1) in Game 1 of a bi-district series at 7 tonight at Seminole’s Robert Ryan Baseball Field. Game 2 is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday with Game 3, if necessary, to follow.

“This is the season we’ve been waiting for all year,” Odessa High shortstop Gibrian Pena said. “This is the most exciting part of the year. Nothing changes in preparation. The mindset and everything stays the same. We’re still working hard and come out here with a great mindset every day.”

In 2018, Odessa High finished in a three-way tie for second place in District 2-6A, entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed because of a tiebreaker, swept District 1-6A champion El Paso Americas in bi-district and went on to reach the regional quarterfinals.

A year later, the Bronchos again come out of District 2-6A as the No. 4 seed after entering the final day of the regular season with a chance to finish as high as second. Five starters on this year’s team — pitcher-infielders Cristian Baeza and Bobby Salinas, shortstop Gibrian Pena, center fielder Charles McClure and outfielder-designated hitter Hervey Nieto — started in the playoffs in 2018.

The similarities of the situations aren’t lost on Odessa High coach Joshua Hulin.

“Experience helps kind of get you comfortable in a situation that can be kind of nervous,” Hulin said. “That first inning of the first playoff game can be pretty nervous. You like having experience because they can settle a little bit quicker.

“Just like every game all season, the most important game of the season is this one coming up on Friday. That’s just kind of been the motto all year, this next game’s the most important game. We’ve played already 30 important games. This next one is just the next most important game that we’ve played.”

While the Bronchos have been there and done that, Salinas said, they have to prove themselves all over again this weekend.

“This year is a whole new year,” said Salinas, who was the winning pitcher in last year’s clincher against Americas. “We can’t go off of what happened last year. We’ve still got to go play our best ball out there.

“We know that (the Bulldogs are) district winners and we can’t take them lightly, but we’re confident in ourselves and the ball that we play.”

Pena said last year’s success means Odessa High won’t be overwhelmed by the playoff atmosphere.

“It’s just knowing that we can come out here and do it just like we did last year,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a whole different season, different team, different roles.

“We’ve got to help the new guys understand that it can be done and that we can do it.”

Baeza, who won three playoff starts last season, said the Bronchos know what it will take to advance in the postseason again this season.

“We have to trust in each other and just keep motivating each other,” he said, “keep each other up and also be good teammates to each other and work as a team.”

Hulin said Odessa High, which lost six seniors off last year’s playoff team, made significant strides during the 2019 regular season to earn a return to the postseason.

“We had some guys who hadn’t pitched in the past throw some big innings for us,” he said. “Those guys who were inexperienced who helped get us here, they’re a big part of the reason we’re here.

“As far as development and all that, we know we’re not a deep team. We’ve got nine or 10 guys who can play and we’re going to ride them as long as we can go. But you can only put nine on the field, so depth is a little overrated in my point of view.”

Baeza said this year’s Bronchos have put in the time and effort both on and off the field to be successful.

“Teamwork has been a big part of it,” he said. “Also, leadership has been there, too. And I guess we’ve all known each other, so we have that good chemistry.”

Odessa High spent most of the district schedule in fifth place before winning four consecutive games against Midland Lee and Permian to put itself in position to qualify for the playoffs.

“We just had to get out there and play our ball,” Salinas said, “Just do what we know how to do and not necessarily play how we had been playing.”

Hulin said the Bronchos will have to be at their best to be able to compete with the Bulldogs.

“Socorro traditionally every year is really, really scrappy,” he said. “Then they throw some good talent in with that and they make a really good baseball team. I watched them play out here on our field in the area round of the playoffs two years ago against Arlington Martin. El Paso Socorro was about as good a team as I’d seen all year.

“We kind of expect the same thing out of them. They’re going to be really good, fundamentally sound. They’re going to put the ball in play. They’re going to be tough outs and their pitchers are going to make you earn it.”

>> Follow Sam Waller on Twitter at @OA_Waller