MANSFIELD – His hat and uniform still dripping with water from the postgame celebration, Brent Hall stood with the district championship plaque tucked tightly under his arm. The title that had eluded the Houston baseball program for 15 years was back in the Tigers’ possession.
“I’m really kind of at a loss for words,” said Hall, who was a player the last time Houston won a baseball district championship in 1992. “It’s very special.”
Led by their homegrown coach who has invested countless time and energy the past nine years into the program he once played for, the Tigers’ long drought came to end Thursday afternoon. Senior Nathan Trentham’s key two-out, two-run double in the fourth inning opened the floodgates as Houston downed Mansfield 10-3 for the Class 2 District 12 championship.
As left fielder Devin Harper squeezed the final out, the team piled onto starter Gus Durst. A few moments later, they emptied the water cooler on Hall’s head – a celebratory bath Houston’s coach and senior-laden roster had waited all season for.
“It feels better than anything in the world,” junior third baseman Kirk Pierce said. “I can’t imagine doing it with any other guys.”
Hall knows the feeling. He was a senior on Houston’s last championship team.
“It means more now because I’m older and I know how special it is to get this far,” Hall said. “It’s definitely more special as a coach.”
The district title is the sixth in program history for the Tigers, who previously won championships in 1992, ’80, ’75, ’60 and ’59. Houston has never won a sectional game – a trend the Tigers (15-6) will attempt to break when they travel to Conway (11-10) on Wednesday.
“I think we were a little nervous to plunge into winning a district,” Hall said. “The monkey is off our back and I think we’ll play loose. I’m fairly confident going in.”
Houston struck first with three runs in the bottom of the first, but Mansfield got all three back in the second. It stayed that way until Trentham’s clutch hit in the fourth.
After a walk and crucial error put runners on second and third with nobody out, the Tigers appeared to miss a golden scoring opportunity when the next two batters struck out and Trentham fell behind 1-2. But he stroked the next pitcher to deep center field to put Houston in front 5-3.
Justin Stringer and Caleb Smith were hit by pitches in front of Durst’s two-run single, and Cory Hart followed another hit batsman with a bloop single that plated two runs to give the Tigers a commanding 9-3 lead. But the biggest blow belonged to Trentham, who sparked the rally with Houston’s biggest hit of the season.
“He shook off a curveball and gave me a fastball down the middle, so I figured I had my chance,” Trentham said. “I took it.”
One day after driving in six runs in the semifinals, Durst again led the offensive charge with a pair of hits and three RBIs. Stringer was 2-for-3 with a pair of runs and Smith also scored twice. Travis Swearengin stole two bases.
Mansfield beat the Tigers 5-4 the previous week, but Houston sent its ace to the mound this time. Although he wasn’t overpowering and allowed at least one baserunner in the first six innings, Durst scattered seven hits and allowed one earned run in the complete-game victory.
Gus was throwing strikes, changed speeds when he needed to and basically just gutted this one out,” Hall said of his senior right-hander, who improved to 4-2.
Stringer singled and Smith walked in front of Durst’s double just inside the third-base line in the first. Pierce followed with a sacrifice fly to right and Swearengin had a two-out single to center as Houston led 3-0.
Mansfield got consecutive hits leading off the second and after an error kept the inning alive, tied it with a two-out, two-run single.
The Tigers took the lead for good on Trentham’s double and added a final tally when David Weybright singled and scored in the fifth.
Pierce said he and his teammates wanted the championship for Hall.
“He’s like my second dad. I really mean that. I love him to death and everyone on the team loves him to death,” Pierce said. “He wants us to play our hearts out because he coaches his heart out.”
WP – Gus Durst. LP – Chandler Veit. 2B: Dustin Taylor (M), Durst (H). Multiple hits – Mansfield, none; Houston, Justin Stringer 2-3, Durst 2-4. Record: Houston 15-6.