ODESSA — The Hawks fought through a season of adversity, but now they can breathe for a moment — Howard College baseball will be represented at the Region V Tournament in Grand Prairie. But first, they had to get past Western Junior College Athletic Conference rival Odessa College.
It was the epitome of a must-win game Saturday as the Hawks' postseason fate would be determined by the outcome of the final meeting of a four-game series — as well as the regular season — between the Hawks and the Wranglers.
Heading into the affair, Howard had to take at least two from the Wrangler to guarantee a playoff berth.
The Hawks (23-13, 35-21) edged OC, 6-5 in Game One.
“We played fairly well the first game,” said HC Head Coach Britt Smith. “They competed even though Odessa had a pretty good guy on the mound. He threw 94-95 miles per hour. He's one of the better pitchers in the league, but Levi Scott went three-for-four with a home run and a walk-off double to score Cameron Neal in the bottom of the seventh.”
The Wranglers returned the favor, taking Game Two by a score of 9-8.
“We didn't compete well in the second game,” Smith explained. “Michael Resnick had a three-run homer, but we made some mistakes and blew a lead. We didn't get it done.”
Things got worse from there, as Odessa took Game Three, 11-6.
“We didn't make some plays we needed to in the third game,” Smith said. “We scored two runs in the first inning. Odessa had a big home run in the fifth. We went to our bullpen and we were just bad. There's no other way to put it.”
A grand slam by Nick Bullington in the top of the seventh, however, lifted the ailing Hawks' spirits.
“It made it look like a closer game than it was,” Smith said of the four-run home run. “It gave us momentum going into the last game and (pitcher) David Palladino was lights-out for us. We scored four runs in the top of the first. Palladino only gave up three hits and we played well behind him.”
Howard would go on to win Game Four, 15-1.
“In Game Four we were really good at the plate,” Smith said. “Our approach was as good as it's been all year. Granted, we were at the end of their rotation.”
For the first time since early in the season, Smith seems optimistic. After all, it wasn't an easy road for his squad, which played a grueling schedule in many aspects — starting with the majority of its games taking place on the road due to upgrades to Jack Barber Field — the Hawks' home stadium.
In fact, Smith thinks that his battle-hardened team may be able to use its challenges to its advantage.
“We played a better schedule than anyone in the state and we played it on the road — we've seen Blinn, we've seen San Jacinto, we've seen Grayson. Grayson is probably the favorite this year and it took them 13 innings to beat us,” Smith said. “It was a tough schedule — we gave up conference home games because of the field. Sixty-five to 70 percent of our conference games were on the road, so we're used to playing neutral site and road games. It isn't anything new to us.”
“I think people just expected us to get there,” Smith said of the regional tourney. “We've played in the finals in the last two and the last three-of-four. We're certain we're not the favorites this year.”
The Hawks may have taken their lumps during the season, but from a pitching standpoint, Howard is stacked. Smith believes his cadre of hurlers can compete with anyone.
“That's the only area that's been consistent,” Smith said. “We have the pitching to win this tournament. We have at least six guys than can start. We're built for it. In a tournament situation, that's what you need. Other teams are built for the regular season — four games series'. So that could work out in our favor. In the bullpen, Blake Smith has been consistent all year. He's won two games and has six saves. He's pitched in every pressure situation. Of course, we still have to play defense and hit the ball.”
One Hawk pitcher, David Palladino, led the conference in ERA with 2.30. Teammate Brian Drapeau ranked fourth with 3.59. Palladino led the league in opponent batting average with a paltry .213, while teammate David Gates finished just behind him with .217. Palladino averages 12 strikeouts per game.
The Howard College pitching staff has a combined .409 ERA — the best in the WJCAC. The Hawks pitchers also lead the conference in opponent batting average with .243.
“We have the pitching,” Smith added. “It's going to come down to timely hits. That's postseason baseball.”
The Hawks will make their Region V tourney debut Saturday at QuikTrip park at AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie at 8 p.m. against Grayson College.