VAN ALSTYNE — Rhett Gallagher leans against the chain-link fence down the right-field line, a few feet from the banner hanging on the clubhouse which proudly displays the best season in Van Alstyne baseball history.
It is from four years ago, when the Panthers were the Class 3A runner-up with a 31-4 mark, and Gallagher is the lone player left from that squad.
A couple of classmates were in the program at the time but he is the one who played, scoring a run during the semifinal win. Fast forward and Gallagher is hoping to get the championship he nearly won as a freshman.
“We came up short the last time; that’s what I remember most,” he said. “It’s hardly ever people get a second chance like this. We knew we had a special team at the beginning of the year. We’re not done. We’ve got two more games hopefully.”
Armed with a deep pitching staff and a knack for winning close games, Van Alstyne (29-6) faces Blanco (32-4) in a Class 3A state semifinal at noon on Friday at Dell Diamond in Round Rock.
“We’re never out of a game,” Gallagher said. “We’re going to fight and stick around.”
Wall (37-1) and Kirbyville (33-7) square off in the first semifinal at 9 a.m. and the winners will play for the state championship at 9 a.m. on Saturday.
“It’s been a whirlwind last couple of days. It’s pretty awesome for our kids, for our community,” VA head coach Jimmy Haynes said. “It’s a great feeling. There’s an expectation now and that’s a good thing. They’re setting the precedent for the future Panthers coming up.”
Six of the Panthers’ wins have been by a single run — two of them coming the last two weeks to keep Van Alstyne’s run going. After rallying in the sixth inning against Atlanta in Game 3 of the region semifinals, the Panthers won Game 3 of the region final over Harmony with a sixth-inning comeback for a 6-5 win.
“We’ve been put in situations twice now where we know how stressful it can be,” senior outfielder Tyler Wilson said. “It’s been on our minds since Saturday. The overall accomplishment, the fact that this is a legacy, it means a lot. It’s awesome to be a part of.”
Conner Loftice tied the score with a two-out infield single and Wilson followed with the eventual game-deciding hit to right center.
All three games of the series ended in one-run margins — VA won the opener 2-1 before Harmony took the middle game with a 7-6 victory.
The Panthers will go with Chandler David in the semifinal and Gallagher waits to start the championship game should Van Alstyne advance. Samuel Tormos and Zach Smith will be the first options out of the bullpen.
“We feel comfortable with that,” Haynes said. “You look at our stats and you know who our No. 1 is. You might have to look a little harder at Rhett and Sam because they’re similar to figure it out for our No. 2.”
David is 13-2 with a 1.04 ERA, 123 strikeouts and 23 walks in 87.1 innings and earned the save in Game 3 to send the Panthers to state. Gallagher is 6-0 with six saves, a 0.75 ERA in 47 innings with 67 strikeouts and 16 walks and Tormos is 6-2 with a 1.69 ERA, 53 strikeouts and 18 walks in 45.2 innings.
Offensively Tormos leads the team with a .494 average, 15 doubles, two homers, 32 RBI and walked 19 times, Gallagher is next at .449 with nine doubles, two homers and 21 RBI and Wilson is batting .387 with nine doubles, two homers and 15 RBI.
“We knew we had a chance to go deep,” Haynes said. “Not necessarily go to state but go deep and we’ve done that. As you play your season you see how your team is going to jell and what you’ve got and then you start thinking, ‘we’ve got a chance to make it.’”
Blanco, the Region IV champion, has set a school record for victories and is at state for the third time in program history and first since 2007, when it was a semifinalist. All of those have come under Bryan Wyatt, who has won 685 games in 34 years as the team’s head coach.
Blanco hadn’t been to the region semifinals since 2012 or made the region final since going to state in 2007 before this season. The program was also the state runner-up in 1988.
Senior A.J. Briscoe leads the pitching staff with a 10-2 record and 1.15 ERA and will get the start against Van Alstyne while junior Walton Davies is 6-0 and the only other hurler with more than three victories — 10 different pitchers have earned wins this spring.
Junior first baseman Tate Trammell leads the team with a .600 batting average while seniors Tyler LaRue and Eddie Calzoncit are each hitting .494, followed by sophomore infielder Baylor Smith (.480), junior infielder/outfielder Hunter West (.476) and senior outfielder Jackson Hunter (.436).
LaRue, a catcher, has signed with Rice and has nine homers and a team-best 39 RBI.
The team has yet to lose in the playoffs, going 9-0 with an opening victory against Ingram Moore followed by sweeps of Luling, district opponent Jarrell, Banquete and Bishop. Only one of those games was decided by fewer than three runs, the opener of the region final.
Blanco topped Bishop, 3-2, and then advanced to state with a 6-2 victory in a pair of contests that could have easily seen Blanco get swept. The clincher nearly turned into a deciding Game 3 as Bishop led 2-1 in the seventh before Blanco scored five times, including a bases-clearing triple by Smith. In the opener, Hunter drove in the deciding run in the ninth inning.
Half of Blanco’s losses came in 25-3A play — 6-5 to Johnson City LBJ in the second-to-last-game of the regular season and 5-4 in the first meeting against Jarrell to snap an 11-game winning streak — and it won the district title anyway. The other two losses came in the first five games of the season in a 13-1 setback to North Harlan and 8-7 to La Vernia.
It also had winning streaks of eight and the current 10-gamer it carries into the semifinals. Nearly half of the wins (15) have seen Blanco score double digits, including five times in the postseason.