By BRAD KEITH
STEPHENVILLE (July 27, 2015) — Nobody expected much noise from the Stephenville Mongooses at the Texas Teenage Baseball 15U state championship in Colorado City last week.
Why should they have? The Mongooses were the second place team from Stephenville, which was represented by teams with a combined 1-11 state tournament record from 2012-14.
The same Mongooses two years earlier had a dismal season that left some boys re-entering the Stephenville Parks and Recreation Department draft to land on a different team.
But in 2015, Nathan Bural took over head coaching duties with the Mongooses. He brought players together, established goals and taught them to work together to achieve them. He listened to players and made choices based on chemistry, not just talent, when it came time to select pick-up players for state. Most of all, he changed the climate and culture surrounding the club, using his position to unify a team once divided by past coaches.
“Nathan connects with us. I’ve never really had a coach who knows how to do that,” said Zane Smith, who fired a complete-game shutout in the state tournament opener. “He makes us feel more loose, and he’s the type of guy you want to give your best for. He just made us compete at the next level.”
And the results speak for themselves.
The Mongooses won two games at the state tournament, advancing through four rounds and surviving until only seven teams remained.
Smith was the star on the mound while the bats did plenty to back him up in the opener, a 10-0 victory over the previously undefeated Copperas Cove Champs, a team that was 9-0 and averaging 18 runs per game. Smith had nine strikeouts and allowed just three hits and two walks in five innings, while his battery-mate, Jacob Crouch caught the whole game and threw out two base runners.
“It was a really good feeling because that was my first state playoff win,” said Crouch, who actually lives in Hico. “I’ve gone to state several years, but until then had never gotten a win.”
The win came late on opening day of the tournament, and after returning to their lodging in nearby Snyder, the kids were not in bed until 1 a.m. They were up at eight eating, dressing and getting ready to return to Colorado City for pre-game warmup before an early game the next day.
“You can’t use any of that as excuses because every team is there dealing with similar circumstances,” Bural said. “But it shows you how hard the kids worked, getting off the field, getting short nights’ sleep and getting right back at it first thing the next day. Those are good lessons for these kids.”
The Ballinger Elite handed the Mongooses their first loss of the tournament, 9-4, placing them on the brink of elimination.
And the Stephenville kids had to be right back on the field later that day.
“We turned around and played at eight that night against Roscoe, and you could tell we didn’t want to go home yet,” Bural said.
Mark Smith started on the mound. Not a pitcher by trade, he helped the club get through the first 1-2/3 innings before Crouch came out from behind the plate and tossed a shutout over the final 5-1/3.
“That kid’s tough, and he’s going to be a good player for Hico,” Bural said of Crouch.
The Mongooses won again, defeating Roscoe 8-3, staving off elimination and keeping their season alive before again returning to their lodging.
Lodging for the night meant a short trip to Snyder, where Bural, the athletic communications director at Tarleton, had used his connections to arrange for the boys to stay together in a residence hall at Western Texas College.
“I wanted to do something different and make it a special experience for the boys. Normally we tell the parents, this is when we play, you’re on your own for meals and hotels and we’ll see you at the field,” Bural explained. “Western Texas College helped out, supplying dorm rooms so we could keep the guys together all week. Rocky Point Baptist Church loaned us a van so the team could ride together, and Bobby and Jessica Cowan of Cowan Ag Solutions took an RV and stayed in the parking lot at the dorms and cooked for us. The parents showed up to help with the cooking and it was great. It wasn’t just a regular trip, it was a team experience and something I’m proud to have been a part of.”
Gatlin Wells was just glad to be a part of the Mongooses again. Wells left the team after the dismal 2013 season, and didn’t return until Bural selected his pickup players for state this summer.
“I gave the boys the option to pick who we take because, like I told them, they would be teammates and we needed chemistry. Without a question all the boys picked Gatlin,” Bural said. “They all wanted him to be a part of their team again.”
It was a decision that made Wells’ summer.
“It was really fun to come back. I left the team originally for better coaching. But Nathan came to coach the team, and Jacob told me he’s a great coach, so I was excited to get picked up and be back with my teammates and a coach I would like,” said Wells. “I knew all the players very well. Zane and I played high school (JV) ball together and Jacob and I have played together since we were nine years old until last year when he stayed with the Mongooses.”
Wells and Zane Smith still played together, but not until the state tournament when the team Wells played for picked up Smith.
And even in a short time together, Wells said Bural and the Mongooses made a positive impact on his baseball experience.
“They definitely helped me. Nathan helped me improve, especially mentally with baseball situations and working through stuff when it’s hot and we’re tired. He helped me grow as a player,” Wells said. “Every year I’ve been to the state tournament, we’ve been shut out both games. This year we went and won the first game and it was my first playoff win. It gave me confidence, and overall I felt good about how we did.”
Wells was even involved in one of the team’s most heartfelt moments of the summer.
Dylan Jones missed the cut off for the 12U league by a matter of weeks. But Bural wanted the youngster to have a chance to be a part of a team and get to play.
“I drafted him and he played all year against high school kids, and I wanted him to get a chance to go in at state,” Bural explained. “I sent him in as a courtesy runner for Gatlin and it was incredible. Gatlin gave him a huge high five, and all the boys were on their feet getting loud, rooting for Dylan. It was one of my greatest moments as a coach when we got a hit and I got to watch him round the corner at third base, run home and jump on the plate with both feet. It was awesome.”
Back to the battle at hand, the Mongooses moved on to face the Ennis Cubs.
“We probably played our best baseball game of the year. Everyone was hurting and tired, but we were mentally tough and fought them to the very end. We just didn’t have it that day,” Bural said.
Andrew Matthews of Hico drew a walk and stole a base before scoring on a pinch hit single to left by pickup player Phillip Acorn, who batted for Ty’Von Robison. Bural re-entered Robison to win, and he moved to third before scoring on a sacrifice fly by Wells to put the Mongooses on top 5-4.
It wasn’t meant to be, however, as Ennis responded with the final three runs and a 7-5 victory. The Cubs went on to eliminate the Dublin Astros in third the next day in a 16-14 shootout.
“They had some good hits and came back with three runs and we just couldn’t overcome it again,” said Bural. “Credit to them, they have a good team.”
And so did the Mongooses, with a club built as much on chemistry as talent.
Another example of this is the relationship between best friends Zane Smith and Robison.
“I’ve been best friends with Ty’Von forever. He stays with my family a lot and we’ve always been there together. We’ve played together since the fourth grade,” Smith said.
Their relationship was close enough that Smith refused to leave the Mongooses even after the disastrous first season two summers ago.
“I stayed because I didn’t know if I would be with Ty’Von and I wanted to be sure we played together so we could help him get to practices and games and stuff,” Smith said.
The best friends were rewarded this summer.
“I’m glad I stayed. It was a really fun experience getting to play with these guys,” Smith said. “Any time you play baseball it’s fun, but there was something special about our team this year.”
A team made up of individuals: Zane Smith, Mark Smith, Robison, Crouch, Wells, Matthews, Jones, Alcorn, Cole Stanley, Caden Cowan, Caleb Smith, Ryan “Beltre” Whisenant, Brodie Cahoon and Sean Gooding.
Individuals who teamed up for an epic journey.
“We had some good players, but we weren’t the most talented team,” Bural said. “But we respected the game and played it the right way and everything we did, we did it as a team.”
A team that made a bit of local history, with a run the boys and their coach will never forget.
“We learned about taking an intense approach to the game. We learned to be confident and to be mentally tough,” Zane Smith said. “We learned that if we work together we can achieve anything.”