By all accounts, the bus ride home from Alvarado on April 16 was miserable.
Stephenville had just blundered its way through a series of errors and been shut out by the Indians for the third time. Three games remained in District 7-3A, and the Yellow Jackets had to win all three just to reach the playoffs.
But passionate head coach James Boxley, with his intense demeanor and a soft side few ever see, convinced his team that all they had to do was get in and a long postseason run would follow. A month later, they are still alive, just two wins from the pinnacle of Texas High School baseball.
Stephenville meets Lubbock Cooper at Hardin-Simmons University's Hunter Field in Abilene for a best of three series to decide the 3A Region I championship. Game one is 5 p.m. Thursday with game two to follow. Game three, if needed, is noon Friday.
"I think his demand for excellence sets him apart. You know you'll get nothing less than his best and that makes everyone want to give him their best in return," said Ryker Thompson, a first baseman who will graduate as valedictorian Saturday night, concerning Boxley. "He's always told us we have something special here, we just have to get in. He told us we'll play for a while if we get in."
Getting in was its own adventure, beginning with Venus overthrowing first base, an error that helped Stephenville come from behind in the first of their three must-win 7-3A games. The next two game a day later when Stephenville finished off a victory over Hillsboro from a weather-postponed game earlier in the season, then defeated the Eagles in a full contest.
"He showed us to never give up. He really showed us regardless of circumstances, regardless of the standings or anything, you can't give up," said senior short stop and third baseman Chase Varnado. "It's really paid off for us. We believed in him and our coaching staff and in each other and we pushed through. Some would say we barely made the playoffs, but now we're in round five and everyone's good at this point."
The adversity didn't end in the regular season, however. Surviving four rounds of postseason play has been no picnic. Stephenville overcame 1-0 series deficits against Burnet and Alvarado in bi-district and the regional quarterfinals, sandwiched around a one-game area-round upset of Graham. The Jackets made a resounding statement last weekend, dominating Andrews 8-3 and 7-1 in their first-ever regional semifinal appearance.
"He just wants to win so much, and we've just kind of been feeding off him," said sophomore second baseman Alex Jiminez. "We understand what he wants to do and what he wants to accomplish and we're just going along with it and trying to win."
And doing a good job of it, as evidenced by 10 wins over their last 12 games including a 7-2 mark in the postseason. Eight of those 10 wins came with their season on the line - three in the regular season, games two and three of two playoff series and the one-game playoff with Graham. The Jackets are 5-0 the last two years in the second games of series.
"That goes back to staying focused and again, never giving up," said Varnado. "We've been down in a series twice in these playoffs after game one, but he just never lets us get our heads down. Then we come back and win game two and ultimately the series. His motivation and his character has gotten us to push through, and the character of all the players has helped us do that and finish strong."
Stephenville assistant coach Tyler Kelsey has had the best seat in the house as Boxley has worked his magic.
"He has such a great mind for the game. His knowledge is incredible, but what really makes him special is his drive," said Kelsey. "He wants to win state so badly. We talk about it all the time, even when things aren't going well we talk about it."
Kelsey labels Boxley a master motivator.
"As a young coach, I'm just blessed to be around him and see how he works with these kids." Kelsey said. "He has a way about him where he gives the kids encouragement, tells them we believe in them, that everyone believes in them. And he does it in such a way that it hits the nail on the head every time. He always knows just how to get the guys fired up and how to get the very best out of them."
At games and on the practice field, everyone see Boxley's intense, competitive side. But his players say there is a soft interior there that helps to build relationships.
"Some think he's real hard nosed, but behind closed door's he's a pretty cool guy," Varnado said. "He'll get emotional, then he'll also joke around with us. It makes us comfortable around him. It builds that relationship that coaches have to have with players."
Then it's back to the field, and right back to business.
"He can be pretty scary at times, but that's good, because we know he just wants us to succeed," said Thompson. "A little scared is okay because it makes you play good."
It's not the first time Boxley has had such a run. He guided Forney to the 3A state final in 2004 after reaching a region final for the first time in 2003. Now, just a month after his team appeared all but dead, he hopes to provide Stephenville its first taste of the state tournament.
"We knew we were having a tough time in district, but that's baseball and not everything goes your way," Jiminez said. "But he believes in us and we believe in him and in each other, so we all just kept playing and driving. We finally hit our stride and got hot at the right time."