When a school hasn’t advanced to a state tournament in seven years, you figure its fans are patient.
Elevating patience to a new level on the field has helped second-seeded Runnels advance to the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA state baseball tournament.
“This group of juniors and seniors have been together since they were in eighth grade,” Runnels coach Tookie Johnson said. “For the most part they’ve all fought through the normal process. They played freshman and JV ball. They sat on the bench for varsity and waited their turn. I think it’s built a lot of maturity in them. They’ve all had to wait and they know how hard this is and how much work it takes.”
The Raiders (21-4) face third-seeded Oak Grove (20-7) in a Class 2A semifinal at noon Friday at Sulphur’s McMurry Park. It is the first tourney appearance since Runnels won the Class B title in 2008.
The team has a mix of juniors and seniors. Pitchers Hunter Amedee and Josh Sparks are seniors who have signed with colleges. Amedee (8-2) is headed to Centenary, while Sparks (3-0), a Southern signee, overcame some early-season arm issues.
Shortstop Johnny Johnson, the son of the Runnels coach, is a junior who helps anchor the infield. Center fielder Hampton Hudson is another talented junior who helped the Raiders win the District 7-2A title.
Another talented 7-2A team, Doyle, faces defending champion Kinder in the other 2A semifinal set for 1 p.m. Friday.
“I wouldn’t trade this team … our lineup for any team from Class C all the way to 5A,” Sparks said. “I know that might sound strange. I feel like our last game (an 11-3 quarterfinal win over Riverside Academy) was our best game.
“We can hit from the top of our lineup to the bottom. As pitchers, we know how to get people out. We’re playing with a lot of confidence.”
That’s a contrast to early in the year when several players, including Sparks and Hampton, were part of the Runnels basketball team that made a deep playoff run. Tookie Johnson remembers a scrimmage with another semifinalist, 4A St. Michael, that didn’t go particularly well.
Soon things started coming together. Basketball coach Ben Young, a former star pitcher for the Raiders, oversaw the progress of the pitchers.
“Our pitching has been steady,” Young said. “Josh has had some tendinitis the last couple of years and we limited his innings early with the idea that he’d be ready for the playoffs. Hunter wanted that No. 1 role, and he handled it.”
Amedee added, “You know, this (state tournament) is something we’ve been working toward every day. Once we got the basketball players out, we started to blossom. Last year was my first year as a starter, and I think that prepared me. I’ve been able to throw my pitches for strikes and not get rattled.”
The Raider bats have done plenty to rattle opponents. A case in point — 17 hits in the win over Riverside on Saturday.
Johnny Johnson leads the team with a .430 average that includes seven homers and 31 RBIs. Sparks is at .375 with one homer and 24 RBIs. Hudson is hitting .362 and 20 RBIs.
“I think being able to hit throughout the lineup has been the biggest surprise,” Tookie Johnson said. “Everybody expects their top four or five guys to hit, and then after that you usually don’t know what to expect. At the plate we’re competing one through nine. We feel like we’re 12 deep with guys who can give us quality at-bats.”
Johnny Johnson was in the dugout as a youngster when his father and the Raiders won the state title in 2008. He said this team and the 2008 squad had strong team bonds.
“I don’t think we do things real well; I think we do them exceptionally well,” the younger Johnson said. “Our pitchers throw strikes. We just compete.”
Hampton said the patience has paid off.
“There’s nothing better than trying to fulfill your dreams and win a championship,” Hudson said.