Stephenville’s trip under the radar is over with the release of the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association’s first Class 4-A poll where the Yellow Jackets debut at number 8.
“We love the challenge. I told the kids we are not going to shy away from the challenge,” coach Justin Swenson said, “We love the adversity and enjoy it for what it’s worth.”
That’s a good thing considering the Jackets are a top ten in state and their region contains five of those elite teams.
“We want people to know we are up for a challenge and we don’t fear anyone,” Swenson said.
Swenson’s statement comes without any swagger and it is never bragging if you can back it up. The Jackets have proven they don’t back up far and when they do their opponent can expect a rally.
There is confidence in the air during Thursday’s practice as players settle into their workouts with a brisk and chilly wind whipping.
This year’s squad has produced a ten-game winning streak that came to an end in the Wimberly tournament and the Jackets bounced back with a 4-3 win over Llano to run their record to 11-1-1 on the season.
It’s not so much the sterling record the Jackets have laid down that has drawn the attention of poll voters as much as it is the fact Stephenville has won those games on the road.
“That’s the way out schedule has played out their year and that’s because I wanted to get in games,” Swenson said.
The Jackets have been involved in tournament games which are being played on artificial turf with the plan being weather not wiping out the playing surface.
The strategy has paid off with Stephenville getting in four games the first week of the season while many teams got on one or none due to muddy unplayable fields.
Without a doubt, the biggest factor is the Yellow Jackets have had four years to mature from freshman to seniors under Swenson’s coaching.
Players like Gage Graham and Cody Storrs are providing the senior leadership that Swenson is expecting from his team.
Stephenville’s players have bought into Swenson’s two-strike philosophy at the plate and it has increased the Jackets run production this season.
“It’s limiting our strikeouts and forcing the defense to make plays against us,” Swenson said. “That’s one thing we have really worked on. We are not giving away those free passes this year.”
The Jackets’ pitching hasn’t been overpowering but has instead focused on consistency and getting the ball over the plate and trusting in the Stephenville defense to make plays.
That’s not to say there hasn’t been some great pitching as junior Daniel Luna was a walk away from a perfect game in a six-inning game.
Senior shortstop Derek Gifford (Howard Payne signee) pitched sparingly last year and worked on adding a knuckleball to his arsenal which now contains four different pitches.
“Derek has really been a pleasant surprise for us this season as he comes out and gets teams off balance and he keeps the ball down low,” Swenson said.
Caleb Smith has performed well in relief and the Jackets win against Llano featured a standout performance from Mason Castleberry who hasn’t thrown in a competitive game in a year.
Castleberry complained of a sore elbow last year and was found to have a slight tear in his elbow. Castleberry was able to rehab without needing surgery and began a pitching program in January that had him on pace to make his first start over the weekend.
It was a highlight performance as Castleberry pitched six innings giving up just three hits and only one earned
Stephenville has a game tomorrow against Alvarado with a rare home day game starting at 1:30 p.m. Stephenville only has eight home contests left on the schedule.