I don’t currently have a favorite baseball player. I have two.
Ryker Thompson and Jared Stroebel are simply a joy to watch as they join their Stephenville teammates on the best playoff run in school history.
They play with passion, integrity and intelligence. And they’re playing their best ball at just the right time. Stroebel ripped a double down the left field line during Stephenville’s game one win against Andrews Friday night in Abilene. Thompson had a pair of two-out singles and drove in three runs to complete a sweep of the Mustangs in game two Saturday.
And just like Stephenville is now ‘elite’ on the diamond, Thompson and Stroebel are elite in the classroom. Following this week’s 3A Region I finals against Lubbock Cooper, Thompson will deliver the salutatory address at graduation Saturday night. Stroebel is academic all-state in every sport he participates in.
The traits that make Thompson and Stroebel successful are the same that has led Stephenville baseball to its record run. Beyond that, the same can be said for the school’s entire athletic program, which is capping a year that already included its fifth state championship in football, regional finals appearances in volleyball and girls basketball and an individual state title in track and field.
I overhear many things hanging out behind the scenes at high school athletic events. Before game two of the Andrews series Saturday, I overheard a conversation that showed the admiration ‘others’ have for Stephenville.
A gentleman who’s name I intentionally did not ask - he was about to umpire the game, so I thought his compliments were best left unattributed - was standing nearby as I set up my computer and score sheets. I couldn’t help but immediately begin typing his words.
“That man right over there is one of the most unbelievable class acts I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s a gentleman, he’s knowledgeable and he’s unbelievable to those kids,” the umpire said.
He was talking about Stephenville baseball head coach James Boxley. The same Boxley whose club needed three straight wins just to get out of District 7-3A in third place. A month later, the Jackets are one series away from the state tournament.
“You can just see that those kids love that guy and want to give him everything they can,” Ump added. “It’s kind of like how it is with (Joe) Gillespie in football.
“There’s just something about those Stephenville kids,” Ump concluded.
The whole conversation lasted about a minute or so. That’s all it took for Ump to verify what Gillespie, Boxley and others have been saying about ‘those Stephenville kids’ all along. You know, those kids like Thompson and Stroebel, and so many others.
I’m paraphrasing from memory, but during one of our weekly interviews during the football playoffs last fall, Gillespie made this statement: “Teams think they play hard, and they do. Then they play us as hard as they know how, and they’re still shocked how hard we play.”
I think some baseball teams have been shocked just how hard it is to eliminate a team like that. I know a lot of football teams were.
Stephenville has a reputation for developing kids who excel in the classroom and peak athletically at just the right time. Kids like Thompson and Stroebel. And dozens of others whose names could be substituted there.
When Stroebel’s double almost left the yard and he cruised into second standing up Friday night, part of me wanted to jump out of my seat. And when Thompson delivered time and again Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but lean back and smile.
Stephenville wins and wins. In many sports. They do it because of coaches like Boxley and Gillespie, and because of kids like Thompson and Stroebel.
I’ve never seen Lubbock Cooper play baseball, but I hear they have one heck of a team.
Having seen a lot of Stephenville kids like Thompson and Stroebel, they dang sure better.