Driving through rainstorms. A horde of bees. Coin flips. If the Flatonia (Texas) High School baseball team learned anything during its recent run to the Class 2A state championship, it’s that anything can happen. The Bulldogs battled the elements and a difficult district schedule to claim their first title since 1993.
To close it out, they succeeded in navigating one of baseball’s toughest scenarios: the dreaded elimination game.
Every state’s postseason format is different, but at some point, most clubs will face a win-or-start-planning-the-team-banquet situation. Flatonia swept four best-of-three Region 4 series, but Texas’ state semifinals and finals are one-game affairs.
They’re fun. They’re entertaining. They’re nerve-wracking. They’re stressful.
“Baseball’s kind of a fickle game,” Bulldogs coach Shawn Bruns said, “to where it can be your best friend one day and your worst enemy the next. You’re only as good as your last game.”
It Starts During the Season
From preseason practice on, Bruns said he and his coaching staff stress a minutiae-based approach.
“We try to play — I know it’s cliché — but win every pitch, win every out, win every at-bat,” the longtime skipper said.
That serves a team well once it reaches elimination play. The moment is bigger, the stakes higher, but a spring and early summer of daily locking-in makes it easier to focus no matter the distractions.
Playing a tough schedule helps, too.
Flatonia’s district this past season included powers Weimar High, Shiner High and 2015 addition Fayetteville High.
“We’ve never gone undefeated in our district, but that’s good in a way, because it shows you what your weaknesses are,” said Bruns, Flatonia’s coach since the school’s first baseball season, in 1992. “Of course, you want to play your best ball at the end. I think our district race really prepares for those kind of situations.”
So does the way Bruns handles pitchers. He relies on a three- or four-man rotation throughout the year, but on any given day at least seven extra arms are kept warm in the bullpen. When the Bulldogs’ junior varsity team wraps up for the year, that number increases to the double digits.
Then if Flatonia plays in any lopsided state tournament games, plenty of options are available for mop-up duty.
Expect the Unexpected
In Texas regional play — which determines state semifinal participants for each classification — coaches can agree to a best-of-three series, a one-game standoff or, if they can’t reach an accord, a coin flip to determine how each round will be decided.
Bruns prefers a series. For this year’s regional semifinal against Kennedy High, Bruns won the coin toss, but only one game was played because bees attacked the San Marcos High School field shortly before Game 2; by the time a beekeeper was brought in, a giant storm from West Texas began pounding the area.
Flatonia won the first game 11-0. That was enough to advance to the regional final after the rest of the series was called off — flooding had recently rocked Texas the weekend before, and the coaches and officials agreed there was no way to get anymore games in.
Live in the Moment
Bruns helmed Flatonia to instant success in the early 1990s. The Bulldogs reached the state final in 1992, their inaugural season, and won it all a year later. But they didn’t make it back to the tournament until 2008. This year’s title marked the pinnacle of a yearly progression — a regional final loss in 2013, followed by a state championship defeat last June.
So Bruns constantly reminds his players to appreciate every opportunity they receive.
“The kids really feed off of trying to do well in an elimination-type situation,” Bruns said. “It’s just a matter of mentally preparing yourself. Everybody’s going to be pretty well prepared physically, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job of telling them to live in the moment, to play like it’s your last game that you’ll ever play in.
“If you do that, you give yourself a chance to succeed.”