SPRINGFIELD – His players seated in front of him and most of the fans that had come to support them behind him, Brent Hall attempted to address his team. But each word he spoke brought more tears.
A journey that began several years earlier was over. It began in the humid, sticky summers, carried over to early-morning batting practices in the dead of winter and ended with the Houston Tigers making a magical comeback before losing 13-10 to Blair Oaks in the MSHSAA Class 2 championship game.
Hall gave in to the finality of the moment. He paused, removed his sunglasses and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“The reason I got so emotional wasn’t because of the way the game ended, it’s because it’s ending with this bunch of kids,” Hall said of seniors Gus Durst, Justin Springer, Travis Swearengin, Nathan Trentham and Cory Hart. “I hate to see these kids go. They’ve been like my own sons.”
Houston’s five seniors, who began playing for Hall when they were in middle school, lost their final game. But they’ll always be remembered as winners. They will also go down as pioneers for the program.
The Tigers ended a long district drought when they beat Mansfield on its home field for the District 12 crown. It was Houston’s sixth baseball district title and the first since Hall played for the Tigers in 1992. It didn’t end there.
Behind a hot-hitting offense that scored more than 10 runs in seven consecutive games and the right-handed arms of Durst and Trentham, Houston beat Conway in sectionals, downed Purdy in the quarterfinals and thumped West County in the semifinals for the first three playoff victories in team history.
Houston fell behind Blair Oaks – the undefeated defending champs – 8-2 and still trailed by five in the bottom of the sixth inning when the Tigers feverishly rallied with seven runs to take the lead. Blair Oaks regained the advantage by scoring five times in the top of the seventh to win back-to-back state titles, but not before being taken to the brink of defeat by Houston.
“I’m glad that other people and the town folk in Houston got to see what kind of character these kids have,” said Hall, who completed his ninth season as the Tigers’ head coach. “They earned what they got. It took a lot of hard work to get here, and they’ve done it for a long time.”
Swearengin said he and his teammates had dreamed of taking the baseball program to new heights.
“Since we were 11 or 12, we’ve been expecting our senior year would be a first for our school,” he said. “But we never thought we’d make it this far.”
A large contingent of red-clad fans at Meador Park roared as the Tigers took their first lead against Blair Oaks. They were just as loud when the team was presented the second-place trophy and individual medals.
As the team bus returned home, it was met at the city limits by emergency vehicles from the hospital, fire department and sheriff’s office. They escorted the team through downtown, where citizens stood on their porches or lined the streets to show their appreciation for best baseball team in town history.
“We’re the second-best team in the state. You can’t get much better,” Durst said. “We’re pretty proud of ourselves.”