BANGS — Head coach Jim Bob Williams admitted that a month ago the Bangs Dragons’ run to the third round of the playoffs appeared highly unlikely. The defending Region I-2A baseball champions found themselves at the perfect point in the season — but face their greatest challenge in the Region I-2A quarterfinals.

The Dragons (15-12), winners of three straight and five of their last six contests, will square off with the District 6-2A champion and third-ranked Wall Hawks (24-1), winners of 21 in a row, in a one-game playoff at 7 p.m. Thursday at McMurry University.

“The fact that we are still playing is not something a month ago a lot of people expected,” Williams said. “We’d been up and down and were struggling at the time, especially defensively. But we moved some people around and made some adjustments and everybody’s getting comfortable with their roles. They are playing with a lot of self-confidence and the last few games we’ve played extremely well. Against Henrietta, we got nine ground ball outs without making any errors, and earlier in the year I don’t know if we would have been able to do that.”

Bangs knocked off District 5-2A tri-champion Sonora, 13-7 and 9-0, to earn a bi-district championship and upended District 8-2A runner-up Henrietta, 2-0, to capture an area title. Senior J.T. Newton pitched each of the shutouts, tossing a no-hitter against Sonora and a two-hitter versus Henrietta, striking out 27 and issuing only six walks.

“The other night against Henrietta was one of the best games J.T.’s pitched all the way around,” Williams said of the hurler’s 11-strikeout, one-walk performance. “He gave up two hits, and one was a slow ground ball to shortstop and a close play at first. He threw 87 pitches in seven innings and only walked one, so he was all around the strike zone. The thing about Henrietta is they have a lot of guys who had walked more than they struck out, so they had plenty of good hitters. They didn’t chase a lot of pitches.”

Offensively, the Dragons are generating 6.3 runs per game on average, but in the playoffs Bangs has bumped up that number to 8 runs per outing.

Newton also leads the offense with a .419 batting average, seven home runs and 26 RBIs, while other key contributors include Chance Beck (.355, 8 RBIs), Tanner Shaw (.351, HR, 9 RBIs), Brady Glover (.338, 3 HRs, 14 RBI), Chane Burton (.312, 12 RBIs), Chuy Alvarado (.296, 11 RBIs), Daniel Malett (.293, 6 RBIs), Mason Reichenau (.250, 6 RBIs) and Brayden James (.235, 5 RBIs).

“We’re not the type of team that’s going to score 10, 11 or 12 runs a game,” Williams said. “What we are is a team that’s doing a good job of moving people over, making contact and manufacturing runs. The biggest thing for us is we have to put the ball in play.”

Bangs defeated Wall in the regional championship round last year as the Dragons earned their first state tournament berth, but the Hawks have dominated action this season with district victories of 17-2 on March 25 and 12-1 on April 18.

“That’s not the same team that we are now, and I think the kids know that,” Williams said. “J.T. didn’t pitch in either of the first two games, either, and the kids have a lot of confidence with him on the mound. They know with him out there, we have a chance to beat anybody. We’re not intimated or worried about what happened before. They know it’s one game and anything can happen, and we’re playing pretty well right now.”

In 25 games this season, Wall has scored at least 10 runs in 21 of those contests. Therefore, keeping the Hawks offense in check will be the biggest obstacle between Bangs and the fourth round of the playoffs.

“Wall swings the bat extremely well,” Williams said. “They are one of the best hitting teams in the area and in the region, if not the entire state. One through nine can hit the ball, and they all hit it hard. They also have four guys they can put on the mound that are all good pitchers, so they’re well balanced.

“But we definitely have to play well. We can’t have errors and we have to keep them away from the big inning. They’ve been known to have one or two big innings a game.”