The 2018 Millsap Bulldogs’ varsity starting lineup includes five sophomores and a freshman.
The year before, Millsap Head Baseball Coach Jon Lane experienced much of the same, starting freshmen at catcher, first base, pitcher, third base and the outfield.
Lane said he has coached a team with that amount of youth just one other time in his career, back in the 90’s in south Texas.
Millsap, which will host Breckenridge in its final game of the season at 6:30 p.m. Friday, has experienced its share of struggles, holding an overall record of 3-18 prior to tonight’s game.
However, he said the Bulldogs have the talent and potential to compete with District 7-3A powerhouses Brock and Peaster; they simply need a chance to gain more experience on the field.
“Nobody works harder than us during our practices, but game experience, when we are making mistakes on the field, it’s just us being young,” Lane said.
“We’ve got our freshmen and sophomores, and the other teams in our district have been filled with juniors and seniors these past two years, and they’re reloading and reloading, because their junior varsity teams are made up of sophomores. Where as our junior varsity is made up of all freshmen.
“We didn’t have the seasoned junior varsity players to bring up this year.
“Our varsity guys have the skill level to be out there, but game experience, no. The speed of the varsity level is so much faster than at the junior varsity level.”
The Bulldogs lost three seniors to graduation after the 2017 season, as well as multiple players choosing not to return in 2018, he said.
As a result, Millsap had little depth on hand to replace the departing players, he said.
At the same time, Lane said he feels Millsap Athletic Director Jake Johnson has done an excellent job this season helping set the Bulldogs up for future success.
“Our athletic department here is second to none, as far as Coach Johnson and our athletic staff getting people stronger and faster,” he said.
“We’ve leveled out the playing field here tremendously, especially when you have so many kids that play multiple sports. Football, baseball, basketball, archery, and we have tri-athletes that are doing all of it, but our athletic department has now leveled the playing field with other schools in our district as far as athleticism.
Part of Millsap’s plan to help prospective high school baseball players get more experience is through an ongoing transition from a local Little League to a PONY (Protecting Our Nation’s Youth) League, Lane said.
PONY leagues offer young players the opportunity to bridge the gap between youth baseball and the high school level, according to PONY’s official website.
“Right now, our youth association is helping out tremendously by changing to a PONY league system, which the other teams in our area had already been doing,” he said.
“So we’re getting more experience coming in from junior high to high school. We’re keeping it now where it is a level playing field, where as in the past, they were playing in more of a Little League system which was not preparing kids for high school as much as other teams.
Lane said the 2018 Bulldogs’ youth have faced even greater challenges because of where Millsap plays.
“We’re arguably in the toughest 3A district in the state of Texas because of the teams that advance here,” he said.
“Not just advance, but get to regionals and the state finals; Brock, Peaster and Breckenridge.”
Lane said apprehension arose amongst some of his younger players at times this season.
Not for a lack of confidence in themselves, but rather facing such tough competition at a young age, he said.
“When we faced Peaster recently, that was the MVP of the league last year on the mound,” he said.
“As a young hitter facing a senior pitcher, they might be going up there a little apprehensive and second guess themselves, which is a young player’s mentality of ‘I hope I don’t strike out,’ instead of ‘Just see the ball and hit it.’ We’re pretty much training on the go. This year was another year of facing teams that had all veteran players as opposed to ours. So they were apprehensive, but it was due to being young.”
To combat this mentality, Lane said he stresses to his players the importance of focusing on doing their respective jobs, not the competition.
“We always teach our guys, play against the game, not the opponent,” he said.
“Because the game of baseball stays the same. I don’t care if I’m facing the New York Yankees, if there is a runner at first base, and they hit a ground ball to the infield, we turn a double play just like anybody would.”
Sophomore first baseman and pitcher Lane Brian said he agreed there was a feeling of apprehension in the Bulldogs’ dugout at times.
“You could hear it before the games,” Brian said.
“Sometimes we would have guys head into the game thinking we were gonna lose,” he said.
Still, there were bright spots this season to instill confidence heading into 2019, Brian said.
“Positives wise, there were times where we wouldn’t win, but we’d get close,” he said.
“Like Brock, they beat us 4-0. First time they beat us, they won like 17-0 or something. So that second game was a positive.”
Brian said he is a better player now from a season ago as a freshman, a positive trend he envisions continuing in 2019.
“I was a freshman on varsity last year, so I got a bunch of learning curves to help me know what I needed to focus on,” Brian said.
“Like my hitting is way better this year than it was last year. So I feel like there’s going to be a lot more positives next year.”
Payton Smith, one of the few upperclassmen on the Bulldogs’ squad (five in all), said this season has presented challenges for the team’s juniors and seniors.
“The spotlight definitely was on us to perform and make sure we’re always on time,” Smith said.
“Even off the field, [the coaches] are watching us to see how we act, so you always have to be doing your best.
“I’m probably considered one of the older kids on the team, one of the leaders,” Smith said.
“It’s kind of hard, because a lot of the younger kids, they don’t have as much experience as you’d like a varsity player to have. But most of them have the skill level to be out here, so it’s just kind of hard trying to be a leader and help the maturity level. But a lot of them are starting to get it, so next year should be a pretty good season.
Despite the added pressure, Smith said he enjoys the increased responsiblity and looks forward to taking on an even bigger leadership role next season.
“I think overall it was a pretty good experience,” Smith said.
“It helped with a lot of leadership points, so next year, my senior year, I’ll really be able to step up as a leader even more and help lead the team to a few more wins and maybe even the playoffs.”