The Albany Lions and Stephenville Yellow Jackets both play the role of underdogs in their respective regions’ final baseball series this week.
Albany (21-4) draws fourth-placed New Home (31-3) in the Region I-2A championship series that begins Thursday in Snyder.
Two hundred miles to the east, Stephenville (24-9-1) plays No. 3 Argyle (32-3-1) in its Region I-4A championship series, also beginning Thursday in Weatherford.
While both Big Country teams face a tough task this weekend, both have proven they are up to the challenge.
Albany has been a small school power this decade — reaching at least the region’s quarterfinals every year since 2015, with two appearances in state tournaments since 2017.
Stephenville, meanwhile, reached the region’s finals last year and shocked two-time defending champion Argyle – who swept the Eagles no less – and secured his first-place finish at a state tournament. It was the first time the Yellow Jackets had ever played in a regional final.
So who says Stephenville and Albany can’t pull off the excitement? You’ve both been here before.
The cat is out of the bag?
New Home, located about 25 miles south of Lubbock, goes into its first 2A Region Finals with quite a history.
The Leopards made it out of Class 1A last season after playing their second straight state tournament in 2019, losing 4-0 to D’Hanis in the league game. Eventual state champion Slocum beat them 6-3 in the 2018 state semifinals.
New Deal defeated New Home in the Class 2A region quarterfinals last year and Albany in the following round before winning the state title.
This year, the Leopards have impressively beaten New Deal (16-2, 13-0) and third-seeded Anson (11-6, 2-4, 13-12) in the last two rounds. They had outplayed opponents in the playoffs 94-13 before the Anson series. Anson defeated Albany for the district title 8-2A and defeated the Lions in league play 13-11, 10-4.
“They’re a very good team, a very solid team, a very good defensive team, and they swing the racquet well from one to nine,” Albany coach David Fairchild said of New Home. They are a very well trained team. A really good baseball team.”
Albany brought back just four starters from last year’s team, yet the Lions — ranked 10th state — are again playing late in the season. So what makes Albany a great baseball program?
“There are some good kids that have come through,” Fairchild said. “This year six students are playing sophomores. The kids have really worked hard. I don’t know, maybe it has a bit to do with tradition. But we held our hat to our pitch and are therefore offensive.”
Cole Chapman, a junior, was outstanding in the postseason, winning all four starts and catching a save. He has given up 11 runs and hit 35 in 27 innings in four playoff starts. He also hit the game-winning run in the 3-2 win over Eldorado in the division series opener.
Cole Read, a sophomore, provided a powerful 1-2 punch. He’s 3-0 with a no-decision in his four starts. Take away a poor start in Game 2 of the region’s quarterfinal series against Coleman, and Read only allowed three earned runs in his starts. Aside from a wild 14-12 win over Coleman in his third postseason start, the Lions have bested all of their opponents in the Read’s starts in the playoffs.
Read, who allowed seven runs (five earned) on four hits in two innings in the Coleman game, rebounded to allow three runs on seven hits in six innings in a 16-3 win over Clarendon to end that streak last week to sweep.
Aside from that slugfest against Coleman, Albany has outplayed their playoff opponents 56-12 — allowing for four runs or fewer in each game.
“We’re just happy to be where we are now,” said Fairchild, who is in his 18th year at Albany. “It was nice. It was fun. You just have to take one game at a time. There are eight teams left in the state. You go out there and fight and give everything you have. We’ll see what happens in the end.”
Another deja vu
Stephenville are the region’s defending champions, but the Yellow Jackets will be considered underdogs against Arygle. The Eagles have won three state titles (2019, 2018, 2015) and also played in the title game in 2014.
“Any time you have Argyle on your chest, you’re usually favored for whatever it is,” said Stephenville coach Justin Swenson. “They are a very talented program.”
Argyle is playing in its eighth straight regional finals, and the Eagles’ football program is just as good.
Still, Stephenville defeated Argyle 2-0, 6-1 in last year’s regional baseball finals, while the Yellow Jackets football team also defeated the Eagles 21-17 on their way to the Class 4A Division I title in December.
However, Swenson believes last year’s win over Argyle in the baseball playoffs will only bolster the Eagles’ resolve this year.
“I actually see it as a disadvantage,” Swenson said. “We spoiled their season last year. Nobody had done that to them for a long time. So I have a feeling they’re getting even hungrier and want revenge on us. He completed many degrees last year and we completed many. So there will be some fresh faces competing, but they all know what’s at stake when we get together and play.”
Argyle might have some new faces, but only Fort Worth Benbrook (7-4), Hardin-Jefferson (9-3) and Godley (4-1) have beaten the Eagles this season. Like Stephenville, they came through the playoffs with excellent pitching and allowed nine runs overall.
“Three losses a year shows what a talented group they are,” Swenson said. “If you rely on 16 and 17-year-olds going out every day, and you have three losses this late in the season, you have a good ball club.”
Like Argyle, Stephenville seeks redemption. Eventual state champions Texarkana Pleasant Grove beat the Yellow Jackets 13-0 in five innings in last year’s state semifinals.
“It definitely left a bad taste in our kids’ mouths, and the kids want to go back and prove we belong,” Swenson said. “We got a taste of what it’s like to be there and we hope we can start making it a regular occasion like you Argyles and Pleasant Groves. I hope this becomes a regular part of our program and we get used to going on that stage and playing.”
This is the third straight year that Argyle and Stephenville have met in the playoffs. The Eagles defeated the Yellow Jackets in the first round in 2019 en route to a state title.
This will also be the last time they meet in the playoffs for some time. Argyle makes it to Class 5A next season.
“I love the rivalry,” said Swenson, Stephenville’s seventh-year coach. “We enjoy playing against these guys. It’s nice to see them go, but we’ll miss the rivalry we’ve created over the past three or four years. Coach (Ricky) Griffin and his group have beaten us twice since I’ve been here and I’ve beaten them once. So we hope to even the series 2-2 and even send them to 5A (with us).
They’ve played each other enough that Swenson has befriended Griffin – adding another twist to the rivalry.
“I have a lot of respect for him and he was nothing but a mentor to me,” Swenson said. “I chose his brain. We’d love to keep fighting it (outside the district) for the next few years.”
The two coaches even help each other out… well, apart from the week they play each other.
“We know it’s a game and it’s about the kids, not us,” Swenson said. “We have developed such a good relationship that he calls me if he needs anything. If I need anything, I call him. I usually call him more often than he calls me. He’s a super guy. One of the best. I’m definitely taking everything I can from him.”
Joey D. Richards covers Abilene high schools and colleges, big country schools and other local sports. Follow him on Twitter at ARN_Joey. If you value local news, you can support local journalists with a ReporterNews.com digital subscription.
REGION I-4A BASEBALL FINALS
Stephenville (24-9-1) vs. Argyle (32-3-1)
All games at Weatherford College
Game 1: 7 p.m. Thursday
Game 2: 7 p.m. Friday
Game 3: 7 p.m. Saturday, possibly
REGION I-2A BASEBALL FINALS
Albany (21-4) vs. New Home (31-3)
All games at Snyder’s Moffett Field
Game 1: 6 p.m. Thursday
Game 2: 1 p.m. Friday
Game 3: 30 minutes after Game 2 if required