Written by Corbett Smith
Championship drought: 5A baseball teams struggle to reach the podium with one title in last 20 years
The trophy haul is impressive. Over the last two decades, Dallas/Fort Worth-area high school programs have won 147 Class 5A titles in team sports.
In football, Allen and Cedar Hill swept the division titles this school year. In basketball, D/FW has dominated, winning eight seven titles and six boys titles in the last nine years. On Saturday, Allen won its fifth straight wrestling title.
From swimming to cross country, track and field to soccer, it’s been a tremendous run.
But that momentum hasn’t percolated to baseball.
Among the slew of area champions, the 2008 Plano West baseball team stands alone.
It is the only Class 5A baseball program from the Dallas/Fort Worth area to win a state title since 1994.
When asked why, some of the area’s best baseball coaches – Arlington Martin’s Curt Culbertson, Southlake Carroll’s Larry Hughes and Coppell’s Kendall Clark – came away stumped.
“That’s weird,” Culbertson said.
“I don’t know,” Hughes said. “I think it might just the way the ball rolls.”
“I’m not sure why,” Clark said. “It just seems like we’re coming up a run or two short.”
Bad luck, bad weather, a talent gap between Dallas and Houston – all possible reasons for the drought got discarded as the coaches worked things through.
In the end, they came to two points of consensus: North Texas does have the talent to win a 5A title, and winning a state baseball title is unlike any other title chase.
“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life,” Culbertson said.
‘A LITTLE AMPLIFIED’
The Dallas/Fort Worth area has experienced more baseball success in other classifications, although the gains have been modest. While three non-5A teams have won titles recently – 4A Rockwall-Heath in 2012, 3A Kennedale in 2011 and 2A Brock in 2006 – those are the only three area titles in the decade.
But there was a stretch during the mid-1990s to early 2000s where area 4A programs came out on top – winning six 4A titles in eight seasons.
Hughes won the last of those 4A titles at Carroll in 2002, before moving up to 5A the next season. Carroll finished as the runner-up to Plano West in 2008.
“If you’re a 4A team, you probably can get away with having three really good hitters, and maybe one other kid,” Hughes said. “Depth-wise, the difference between 5A and 4A definitely is there, especially in the pitching department. Everything’s a little amplified.”
Hughes, however, doesn’t see a talent vacuum between North Texas and the Houston area – which has won 13 5A state titles over the past 20 seasons. Inexplicable runs happen sometimes in sports, he said, pointing to the American League’s 12-0-1 record against the National League in the MLB All-Star Game from 1997 to 2009.
“Houston is loaded with talent, but I think it’s pretty equal,” he said. “You know, it just happens that way sometimes.”
WHAT IT TAKES
Class 5A Region I is as challenging as anywhere else in the state, the three coaches said. To get out of the Dallas/Fort Worth area takes as great team, they said.
To win state, it takes something special.
Clark was Plano West’s coach when it won the 2008 title.
“To me, it felt like a pro team,” Clark said. “We had four pitchers who didn’t play in the field. We had 10 very good hitters. So, really, there was one choice I had to make game in, game out: we flopped the DH. We had a set lineup the whole year, a set batting order and our fielders never changed.
“As a coach, it was easy, to be honest with you.”
Three of Plano West’s top four hitters in the 2008 lineup went on to be selected in the MLB Draft out of college: Kale Kiser, Jason Coats and Ryan Ford.
“That Plano West team is as good a high school team as I’ve seen, ever, in all my years of coaching,” said Hughes, who’s won 512 games over 27 seasons.
‘OVER THAT HUMP’
If a North Texas team is going to break the title drought this season, Martin would be a popular pick. Under Culbertson, Martin has advanced to the state tournament in Round Rock each of the past two seasons.
Despite being so close to a title, Martin has failed to score a run in the semifinals, getting shutout by Fort Bend Dulles, 3-0, in 2013 and eventual champion Houston Cy Ranch, 6-0, in 2012.
However, Martin does have one of the important qualities in a successful playoff team: pitching depth. Twenty-nine of the team’s 36 pitching wins return from last season, with 24 wins coming from senior starters Turner Larkins and Daniel Lingua.
Larkins, a Texas A&M signee, is one of the nation’s best pitching prospects – a 6-3 right-hander with three quality pitches, including a low 90s fastball.
“In the semifinals, you’ve got to have that guy that can get you to that state game – and if we get there – he’s got to be that guy,” Culbertson said. “And he knows that. God almighty, he’s worked extremely hard. He’s 24-1 in the last two years, you know? And that one loss was to Dulles in the semifinal. And I don’t know if that motivated him – but it got all inside him. He didn’t like it.”
Larkins said he knows that the state titles have been tilted toward Houston for some time; “They just breed talent down there,” he said.
However, he added, his team has what’s needed to get back to Round Rock – and take home that elusive trophy.
“The four teams that go – they are the best in the state,” Larkins said. “So, that says something about us. But we need to get over that hump, get a little stronger mentally. We want to be that team – from here.”
A state-wide breakdown on who’s won 5A baseball titles over the past two decades:
Greater Houston: 13 (’94, ’95, ’98, ’99, ’00, ’02, ’03, ’05, ’06, ’07, ’11, ’12, ’13)
West Texas: 3 (’96, ’01, ’09)
Coastal Bend: 2 (’04, ’10)
Central Texas: 1 (’97)
Dallas/Fort Worth: 1 (’08)