Stephenville baseball is going where it's never gone before.
The Yellow Jackets (22-15-1) are on to the regional semifinals for the first time in school history, where they will meet Andrews (23-15) at 7 p.m. Friday and noon Saturday at McMurry University in Abilene. Game three will follow game two, if necessary.
Second-year head coach James Boxley directed Stephenville to the 4A regional quarterfinals last spring before falling to state finalist Cleburne. After changing classes in the UIL's biennial realignment, the Jackets finished third in District 7-3A, but are peaking at the right time.
"When the playoffs got here, we told the kids, 'It's time to step up. Whatever you've done this year, it's time to be just a little bit better,'" said Boxley. "It's a credit to the kids because they never stopped working, they just trusted it would pay off. Now, at the right time, we've hit a stride where we're playing the best baseball we've played all year long."
Indeed. Stephenville is the last team standing from 7-3A, having eliminated district champ Alvarado last weekend. The Jackets dropped a lightning-delayed game one at home, falling 6-5 on an eighth-inning balk. But they bounced back, winning 3-1 and 8-4 at Alvarado.
Stephenville also needed a doubleheader sweep in bi-district against Burnet after dropping game one on the road, 5-3. The Jackets responded with their best offensive display of the season, defeating Burnet 10-4 and 11-6 the next day at home.
"When we go into a series, the mentality is just to outlast the other team," Boxley said. "Us dropping one game with these kids isn't the end of the world, it just means we have a long day of work ahead of us the next day. That's how these kids approach everything, they just keep fighting and never quit. It's hard to beat a team like that."
In the playoffs, a pair of sophomores lead the Jacket offense with pitcher and short stop Brock Morrison batting .391 and infielder and leadoff batter Ben Martin hitting .384. Several others have also stepped up - junior designated hitter Noah Hobbs is batting .350 in the postseason, senior catcher BJ Kinsel is hitting .318 and seniors Witt Westbrook and Chase Varnado have swatted home runs. Westbrook hit two in game two of the Burnet series.
On the hill, Morrison has pitched 17.2 innings and allowed just one earned run in the playoffs. He's struck out 21 batters while allowing 12 hits and issuing 11 walks in that span. Morrison shut down District 5-3A champ Graham when the Jackets upset the Steers 2-0 in a one-game area-round playoff.
Junior Daniel Bullard has been effective in his two playoff starts, going 13 total innings and allowing just three earned runs, nine hits and four walks while striking out nine.
Witt Westbrook and Mookie Carlile have also had strong showings in the playoffs. Carlile's game three start against Burnet was a struggle, but Westbrook relieved him and was solid. Overall, the third and fourth pitching options for the Jackets have combined to work 17.3 innings and allow seven earned runs in the postseason.
Carlile's health is another reason the Jackets have improved. He had shoulder surgery after helping Stephenville with the 3A Division I football championship, and was unavailable early in the year. His return gave the Jackets another pitching arm after they lost sophomore ace Maddux Conger to a lingering concussion.
Boxley said his knowledge of Andrews suggests the Mustangs are similar to Stephenville in more ways than just their near-identical records.
"We think they're a lot like us, so it's going to be a case of whoever shows up and plays good ball that day," Boxley said. "Anybody who has made it this far is deserving and can play, so you have to be at your best each time out."
With all the excitement of a first-ever "Sweet 16" appearance, Boxley said he's just looking forward to getting back to baseball.
"Just getting back out there on the field and playing again is what I'm looking forward to," Boxley said. "It's about fighting to advance and continuing to compete. This is all exciting for the kids, and for the school and it's exciting for me, but in the end we have to focus and take care of business so we can go another step further."