GRAND PRAIRIE — Again, Midland College is a thorn in Howard College's side.
The Hawks (37-22) were cruising at the NJCAA Region V Tournament, having defeated tough opponents in No. 10 Grayson College, then New Mexico Junior College in the first two rounds of play.
But an unearned run scored by the Chaparrals in the bottom of the ninth inning Monday led to a narrow 7-6 victory, sending the Hawks to the loser's bracket.
Cameron Neal — the first batter of the game — was hit by a pitch, then was caught stealing second. Levi Scott singled, Nick Bullington belted a double. Scott rounded third and headed for home and was thrown out at the plate.
Considering how the game ended, the Hawks could have used that run.
Trailing 3-0 in the top of the fourth, Jose Favela — with two on and two out — recorded a RBI on an infield single. Dane Steinhagen followed suit, as the Hawks tacked on two runs of their own.
The Chaps responded in the bottom half of the inning with three more runs.
After leaving the bases loaded in the top of the fifth, Hawks pitcher Tommy Burns retired the Midland hitters in order for the first time during the outing.
Then the offense started to heat up for Howard.
Favela and Steinhagen again picked up back-to-back singles. Neal drew a walk to load the bases with one out Scott finally got the big hit the Hawks were waiting for, driving home two runs to make it 6-4.
Bullington stepped into the batter's box and ripped a base hit, scoring another run before a double play cut the rally short.
Joe Cervantes — who was responsible for three-of-four errors in the game — redeemed his miscues after fielding a hit in the bottom of the sixth, stepping on third base to make one out and throwing a runner out at first before Burns struck out the next hitter to end the inning.
With the momentum on the Hawks' side, Omar Garcia started off the seventh with a single, stole second base and reached third on an error.
A balk scored Garcia and allowed Cervantes to take first, then Favela reached on an error. Steinhagen and Neal were both fanned to end the inning with the score knotted at 6-6.
After a walk and a fielder's choice in the bottom of the seventh, HC Head Coach Britt Smith pulled Burns — who pitched 7 and 1/3 innings, striking out seven — and replaced him with relief pitcher Brock Hunt, who retired the next two batters, freezing Midland base runners.
Hunt had a three-up, three-down inning in the bottom of the eighth, but the Hawks couldn't produce a run in the top of the ninth despite a two-out single by Cervantes who was left on base.
Hunt struck out two Chaps in the bottom of the ninth, but a single, a walk and Cervantes' third error led to an unearned, game-winning run.
David Palladino, David Gates and Burns have all turned in quality outings, but as the pitching thins out, HC Head Coach Britt Smith is hoping for one more quality start, this time from Diego Rodriguez.
"Diego just has to give us a chance," Smith explained. "He has good movement on the fastball, but Grayson is a fastball-hitting team. If he can throw enough off-speed stuff to keep them honest — if we get a pitching performance, yeah, I think we can beat them again."
Down, but not out, the Hawks faced Grayson again today. Smith hopes to limit the mistakes and work his way to the championship game — a task that got more difficult following the defeat.
"We made some physical errors and mental errors," Smith said.
"Obviously, we're not in the best position. We're going to go out there and compete. We will try to take good at-bats and give ourselves a chance to win. We competed well against Midland, we just gave them too many opportunities and too many outs."
Smith — who has been critical of his team for much of the season — cited a renewed sense of cohesion which has allowed the squad to make it this far among the region's best.
"The talent has always been there," Smith added. "Now, the effort is there as well."
A win would keep Howard's tourney championship hopes alive, a loss will eliminate them from contention.
Results will be published in Tuesday's edition of the Herald.