MISSION — Spielberg or Scorsese couldn’t write this one.
It all comes down to three games for a spot in the final four between Sharyland High (34-6) and Sharyland Pioneer (35-9), two rival schools from the same district, to give the Rio Grande Valley its first state tournament qualifier since 2007.
The District 31-5A opponents have been closely competitive all season long. Sharyland High won the district title with a 12-2 record, while Sharyland Pioneer finished second at 11-3. They split two games during district play, each coming from behind to win on walk-off hits.
Now, they’ll clash potentially three more times with the winner advancing to next week’s Class 5A State Tournament in Round Rock.
The offensive firepower the Diamondbacks and Rattlers bring to the table is guaranteed to put on a show for this weekend’s crowd. Bats on each side have been erupting all year, and now, those swings will be under the bright lights at UTRGV Baseball Stadium.
Sharyland Pioneer has four players with more than 30 RBIs in Johnny Lugo (.352, 45 RBIs), Evan Maldonado (.414, 44 RBIs), Jacob Rosales (.404, 32 RBIs) and Isaiah Gomez (.343, 32 RBIs). Pedro Tovias, a Pioneer senior, also has added 24 RBIs on a .370 batting average. The Diamondbacks bats came to life against Boerne-Champion during the fourth round as they outscored the Chargers 23-11 in three games.
Sharyland High has blasted 15 home runs this season, led by junior first baseman Martin Vazquez’s seven. Vazquez is hitting a team-high .418 and has 39 RBIs and 45 runs, in addition to being a rock at first for the Rattlers.
Right behind the big man Vazquez are Abraham Alvarez (.383, 30 RBIs), Juan Lopez (.361, 28 RBIs), Diego Peña (.300, 24 RBIs) and Randy Garcia (.321, 21 RBIs).
Don’t blink because both lineups are capable of producing from top to bottom.
HORSES IN THE BACK
It might not be old town road, but there will be multiple horses taking the mound for the Diamondbacks and Rattlers in the best-of-three series.
The Sharyland High duo of Andy Lozano and Ivan Alvarez helped lead the Rattlers to a district title and have continued their solid play in the playoffs.
Lozano, a junior, holds a .089 ERA with an 11-3 record in 15 appearances to go with 64 strikeouts. Alvarez, a senior, sits at a perfect 10-0 this year with an ERA of 1.38 and 54 strikeouts. They’ll be on the bump for the Rattlers in Games 1 and 2, with a potential Game 3 starter up in the air.
As for the Diamondbacks, they have three horses they can turn to and they’ve showed up time after time for Sharyland Pioneer in this year’s postseason.
The trio of Jacob Rosales (8-3, 1.76 ERA, 92 strikeouts), Evan Maldonado (7-0, 2.32 ERA, 63 strikeouts, and Johnny Lugo (10-0, 1.47 ERA, 60 strikeouts) has gone up against the best the state has to offer in the previous three rounds and made opponents look like they were playing guessing games.
Lugo has pitched all three of Pioneer’s Game 3s in the playoffs and is a perfect 3-0, including an 11-0 shutout win over Boerne-Champion in the fourth round. The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley signee will be playing on his future home field.
“It just comes natural to me. Everything I do, I just want to win and compete,” Lugo said.
Both the Diamondbacks and Rattlers have received key contributions this postseason from a couple of young guns.
Freshman outfielder Saul Soto (.224 avg., 13 RBIs, 28 runs) has started the large part of this year for the Rattlers, but Sharyland High turned to another freshman at pitcher to seal the Game 3 win in the fourth round against Kerrville Tivy.
The arm of freshman Victor Sanchez was called upon with a 4-3 lead during the eighth inning with one on and no outs, just the second time he’s pitched this season. Sanchez stepped up for the Rattlers as he struck out one, forced a ground out and a fly out to Chase Gerlach in right field for the final out and send Sharyland High into the fifth round.
“When we had the freshman coming up in the last inning, it was amazing because it was his second game of the year. He did good, we did good and it was a team win,” said junior Pepe Contreras.
The Diamondbacks have two freshmen who have become everyday starters over the second half of the season for coach Casey Smith in third baseman Oscar Serna and second baseman Juan Rivera, giving an added boost to the Pioneer lineup and defense. Rivera is hitting .475 and has 29 runs and 15 RBIs in just 17 games played. Serna is averaging .364 at the plate and has 10 RBIs and 14 runs in 24 games.
“Sometimes we forget they’re freshman because we just play baseball, we don’t really put an age on it,” Rosales said. “They know their roles and they try their best to fill those roles. It’s great knowing we’re playing our best baseball right now and we can count on anybody.”
Outside of the intrigue this series has to offer on the diamond, there will also be a unique coaching matchup in the dugouts.
Sharyland coach Barton Bickerton and Sharyland Pioneer coach Casey Smith, a former assistant of Bickerton’s, will be coaching against each other for a shot in the state tournament.
Smith, who calls Bickerton his mentor, said while the matchup is exciting for the RGV, it’s no fun for the opposing head coaches.
“In the regular season, I can’t say it’s a lot of fun. This is just a special situation in that we’re both where we’re at. It’s unfortunate that one of our programs has to lose because you’ve had two unbelievable seasons,” Smith said. “If we come out on top, it’s going to be really exciting. If they happen to come out on top, I’ll be the happiest person for that man (coach Bickerton) right there. It’s going to be a battle, we’re going to both get after each other, but at the end of the day, whoever wins, I know the other is going to be genuinely happy for them.”
Bickerton admitted he takes no joy in going up against Smith. When the Diamondbacks and Rattlers play their best-of-three series, Bickerton will also be coaching against his son, Austin, who is the Pioneer pitching coach.
“To tell you the truth, it’s not fun. I don’t like playing Casey, never have,” Bickerton said. “You really have to change everything because they know all of our signals, and we know most of their signals so we have to really change completely what we do. It’s always been that way where you really don’t want to see them lose. It feels good that we win, but you still have that tug at your heart that you’re beating two guys that you really love, you hope they have success also.”
Austin said it’s a special thing to be a part of, but he’s focused on getting his players ready to roll for what should be a solid fifth-round series.
“It’s a cool situation. We’re going to try and focus mostly on our team and try to get our guys ready. It’s pretty much going to be one of the biggest games in Valley history, so we just want to focus on getting our guys ready to go,” said Austin.
“The kids are jacked, they’re through the roof right now,” Smith said. “It’s an awesome experience for any young person to go through, and doing it as a team, it’s something they’ll have for the rest of their lives.”
Rosales, who started a number of big games for the Diamondbacks on the gridiron, said it won’t be a shock to compete on another big stage in front of the RGV.
Two-thousand tickets were sold Wednesday just at UTRGV.
“It takes me back to football playing under the Friday night lights. What helps is I’ve been in several games where there’s thousands of people, so it’s not going to be a shock to me. But at the end of the day, I can’t think about it too much because then it’ll just be something else on my mind. I just got to think about the game and zone out because I know it’s going to be really loud,” he said.
And the Rattlers are ready to roll.
“They have a good team, but we also have a good team and we’re confident. We’re ready,” said Contreras.
Game 1 is scheduled for 7 p.m. today, with Game 2 slated for 7 p.m. Friday. Game 3, if necessary, is set for 2 p.m. Saturday.