With 17 games under their belts in the first season of the Blake Sandford coaching era, the Brownwood Lions have attempted to put the pieces together that will allow them to make a return to the playoffs after a one-year absence.

Tonight, the Lions (10-7) will learn just how ready they are for District 8-3A competition as Brownwood ventures to Liberty Hill for the 7 p.m. league opener.

 “I feel the team has progressed to the point where we feel that we are in every ball game we play,” Sandford said. “Instead of the unknown, hoping to win attitude, I feel the kids have a sense of confidence that they can play at a high level and perform at their very best.”

Earlier this season, the Lions fared well against former district rivals that kept them out of the postseason a year ago, but Liberty Hill, Lampasas, Gatesville, Llano and Burnet will present Brownwood with new challenges this spring.

“This is a new district for us, so there is a bit of an unknown out there, for them and us,” Sandford said. “I think we stack up well. With the guys we have on our team, I believe we can play with anybody. In this season thus far, we have matched up well with several teams in other districts, playing teams that have a lot of success.”

Heading into district, the Lions own a .288 team batting average with a .371 on-base percentage and average 5.4 runs per game. The pitching staff sports a 3.18 team ERA with 147 strikeouts and 59 walks over 110 innings. The opposition is batting .201 against Brownwood pitchers with a .312 on-base percentage.  

“The areas I feel that we are performing best are hitting with runners on base, sac flies and moving runners with bunts,” Sandford said. “Our two-strike approach at the plate has gone very well and we have become a ‘tough out’ team at the plate. 

“Our pitching as a staff is unbelievable. We have done a great job there, putting us in the position to win every time. The guys have done well on the hill, striking out a lot of our opponents.”

Leading the way offensively for the Lions are Justin Osteen (.400, 14 RBIs), Scott Kinzler (.366, 11 RBIs), Seth Owen (.364, 15 runs, 4 RBIs), Cojo Guidry (.364, 17 runs, 10 RBIs), Trent Carlton (.297, HR, 6 RBIs), Bradley Durand (.280, RBI), Emilio Salazar (.265, 4 RBIs) and Elijah Salazar (HR, 5 RBIs).

On the mound, Brownwood has been sparked by Kinzler (2-2, 1.31 ERA, one complete game, one shutout and 52 strikeouts in 21.1 innings), Owen (3-2, 2.21 ERA, one complete game, 47 strikeouts in 25.1 innings), Colt Evetts (2-0, 2.63 ERA) and Osteen (1-0, 2.80 ERA, complete game, 15 strikeouts, 15 innings).

As pleased as Sandford has been with the development of the Lions, there are still areas in which improvement will be required in order to reach their full potential.

“We need to improve daily with our routine plays,” Sandford said. “Our communication in the field still needs to get better. Our base running will need to be amped up with no mistakes.”

Following tonight’s district opener, the remainder of the 8-3A schedule for the Lions is as follows: Lampasas (March 22), at Gatesville (March 26), Llano (March 28), Burnet (April 5), Liberty Hill (April 9), at Lampasas (April 12), Gatesville (April 16), at Llano (April 19) and at Burnet (April 26).

Sandford not only wants to see the Lions compete for a playoff spot, but vie for both the district and regional championships as well.

“Our goal is to win every game we play,” Sandford said. “Our goal is to win district and to win the Region I championship. To reach these goals, we must have focus and confidence. We must make the routine plays routine and we must support each other through the good times and through adversity.

“We have a chance to be real successful, but in order to achieve at the highest level, we must play each game at the highest level. The kids were told that in order for all this to happen, they had to love one another and I had to love them. We are trying to be of the mind set that the whole is greater than a single part, where we can make 15 equal one.”