Early baseball reaches regional quarterfinals, deepest postseason run since 2005 campaign

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of five stories chronicling the top sports performances of the 2015 calendar year.

The Early Longhorns parlayed an undefeated District 7-3A baseball campaign into a trip to the third round of the playoffs in 2015 — the program’s deepest postseason run in a decade.

After sweeping eight league games, the Longhorns — who finished with a 20-8 overall record — knocked Breckenridge out of the first round of the playoffs and surprised Jim Ned in the second round before succumbing to Sonora in the Region I-3A quarterfinals.

Ten postseason honors were bestowed upon the Longhorns as senior Nick Alcorta was selected the district’s most valuable player, while sophomore catcher Grant Fanara was chosen as newcomer of the year.

Landing on the first team were senior pitcher Chris Johnston, senior infielder Cojo Guidry, junior outfielder Abel Hernandez, and sophomore designated hitter Tristan Horton.

Second-team selections included junior David Morales in the outfield, senior Cody Jones at first base and sophomore Christian Alcorta at utility player.

In bi-district action, the Longhorns blanked Breckenridge, 5-0, in the best of three series opener and followed with a 12-1 thrashing in the second game.

Against Jim Ned, the Longhorns cruised to a 11-2 victory in the first game behind a nine-run first inning. Game 2 of the series went to Jim Ned, which also opened a 7-0 lead in the series finale.

However, the Longhorns scored four runs in each of the last two innings, stunning Jim Ned, 8-7, in the bottom of the seventh.

Early head coach Blake Sandford called it the greatest victory of his entire career.

“This is the best one, and the kids deserve it,” Sandford said after the game. “They’ve been working so hard and trying so hard. They’re just trying to do as good as they can.”

Down three runs in the bottom of the seventh, Bubba Reynolds walked and Hernandez was hit by a pitch. Fanara followed with a single to load the bases with no outs

Guidry then ripped a two-RBI single down the third base line, scoring Reynolds and Hernandez and bringing the Longhorns within a run at 7-6.

Nick Alcorta was intentionally walked to again load the bases, then with Christian Alcorta at the plate, Sandford called for a squeeze bunt. The pitch was low and outside, however, and Fanara was caught between third base and the plate. Fanara darted back to third, but a wild throw by the catcher allowed Fanara to score the tying run, while Guidry moved to third.

A couple of pitches later, Sandford called the same play. This time, Christian Alcorta popped the bunt up on the first base side, but with Guidry charging hard toward the plate, the ball landed safely on the turf surface and the celebration began.

In the third round against Sonora, the Longhorns needed only five innings in a 13-3 victory, which staked Early to a 1-0 series lead.

The Longhorns appeared on the verge of sweeping the series as Early raced out to an 8-0 Game 2 lead, only to fall 9-8 in 10 innings.

The Longhorns generated 21 runs over the first 10 innings, but failed to score in the final five frames. Early also left 13 runners stranded on base in the nightcap.

In the series finale, Sonora controlled the game from start to finish, collecting a 9-3 win that ended the Longhorns’ season.

After the final game of the season Sandford said, “We can sit here and talk about what we didn’t get accomplished in the second game, but I would like to say above all else we played deep into May and we accomplished so much. These kids did a wonderful job, they won 20 games and they made it to the regional quarterfinals, and that’s a tribute to them.

“Our kids won a district championship, swept the district and went three rounds. You can hang your hat on that. That’s building a program the right way. We played a lot of baseball. We started at the end of January and we were playing at the end of May.”

Later in the calendar year ,Sandford was named athletic director at Early and served as a head football coach for the first time in his career.

Sandford will also be leading the Early baseball program again in the spring of 2016.