Written by Matt Wixon
Wixon: Baseball uplifts tornado-ravaged Cleburne
Community rallies around team seeking its first state title
CLEBURNE — The sky was cloudy and threatened rain Monday, but the Cleburne baseball team was able to get in some preparation for this week’s Class 4A Region I final against Wichita Falls Rider. After what Cleburne went through two weeks ago, the Yellow Jackets deserved some cooperation from Mother Nature.
The tornado swept through the town of about 30,000 residents on a Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, senior shortstop Nick Woodall and his family drove around town to see the damage.
“It was crazy,” Woodall said. “I’ve never seen that many people in Cleburne.”
The town was packed with emergency vehicles, service workers, representatives from insurance companies and residents helping each other clean up after a tornado that Mayor Scott Cain said destroyed at least 70 homes and damaged hundreds more. It was a chaotic day.
It was also a game day for Cleburne. And although there were plenty of distractions in Cleburne, it was hard to tell from the performance of the town’s springtime point of pride: the baseball team.
Cleburne traveled to Fort Worth Arlington Heights and beat Trophy Club Byron Nelson, 6-3. A day later, Cleburne beat Byron Nelson, 5-1, to sweep the best-of-3 Class 4A Region I quarterfinals series.
“A lot of the people whose houses were messed up were at the game,” Woodall said. “That got us fired up.”
“It was good to get out and play,” said senior first baseman Quade Coward. “It wasn’t like nothing had happened, but it was good to get your mind off it.”
Many of the players had damage to their homes, but nothing beyond repair. Assistant coach Wayland White’s house was heavily damaged, but he was fine, and fortunately, nobody in Cleburne was seriously injured. A tornado that touched down in Granbury about 30 miles to the west claimed six lives.
“We didn’t have any fatalities the way Granbury did,” said coach Ross Taylor, who could get career win No. 500 on Thursday when Cleburne takes on Rider. “So we tend to look at it pretty positively, that we were lucky.”
No luck is needed on the baseball field. Cleburne (35-5) is not a plucky underdog that has used a wave of emotion to get one round from the state tournament. The Yellow Jackets were 4A state finalists last year and are 8-0 in the playoffs this season.
Woodall, who is hitting .462, leads a potent lineup that includes four seniors, four sophomores and a junior. Sophomore Tyler Fowler, a shortstop and pitcher, is hitting .379 and leads the team in home runs (4) and RBIs (40). Sophomore Dylan Schneider (15-0, 1.32 ERA) and Fowler (10-2, 1.41) are the workhorse pitchers.
Cleburne always has a passionate fan base, and that has intensified this season as the Yellow Jackets seek their first state title.
“Every time I go somewhere, I’m asked about it,” Woodall said. “They’re telling us congratulations and asking if we’re going to do it this year. They all have faith in us.”
Mayor Cain said it could take a year for the most severely damaged neighborhoods to look normal again, but Cleburne is moving forward. Amid all the cleanup and repair, the baseball team hopes to make this the year of a championship, not the tornado.
“I think it was a really cool thing how our whole town kind of came together to help out each other,” Coward said. “I think that’s a lot how it is with baseball, too. They come out and support us like that.”
Follow Matt Wixon on Twitter at @mattwixon.