Lions face No. 10 Liberty Hill for second time as District 8-3A action begins Tuesday

DERRICK STUCKLY BROWNWOOD BULLETIN derrick.stuckly@brownwoodbulletin.com
Brownwood’s Elijah Salazar (right) slides back into first base during the Lions’ only home game thus far this season, a 6-5 loss to Abilene Wylie on March 4. The Lions (6-11) will open District 8-3A action at 7 p.m. Tuesday as they host No. 10 Liberty Hill.

A 6-11 record prior to the start of district action might be considered underachieving for some teams, but with the schedule the Brownwood Lions have endured thus far, first-year head coach Herb Rios feels his team is primed for the 8-3A race.

The Lions open District 8-3A competition at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Morris Southall Field as they face the No. 10 Liberty Hill Panthers for the second time this season. Brownwood dropped an 11-7 decision to Liberty Hill during the Llano Hill Country Classic on March 7.

“We’re 6-11 and by looking at our record it’d be easy to say that we’re struggling, but I don’t feel that way,” Rios said. “I’m excited about what we’re doing. We’ve played some very good competition and we’ve seen some exceptionally good pitching and I believe that’s going to help us. If you want to be able to play with the big boys, you have to play against them. We’ve been in every game with the exception of about three.”

One of those rare exceptions occurred this past Thursday when the Lions lost to Snyder, 11-0, at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene. That outing, however, was the first for the team since the passing of teammate Billy Jones following an automobile accident on March 9.

“We had a rough week with what happened,” Rios said. “The kids wanted to play and wanted to get away and try and get their minds on something else, but it was a tough day for us.”

The loss of Jones has brought the Lions closer together, according to Rios.

“Billy was a very likable young man and I know all these kids enjoyed being around him,” Rios said. “It’s made us realize that life is short and we don’t have another day promised to us. Our kids have grasped that you only get one shot at life so lets go out and do the best that we can and use the abilities God has blessed us with. That’s the approach the kids are taking. The time you get to spend with your peers and friends is very precious and this has already made us an even more closer knit team.”

Brownwood’s signature win thus far this season was a 3-2 victory over reigning Region I-3A champion Lubbock Cooper at the Robinson tournament. The Lions suffered near misses in losses of 6-5 to Abilene Wylie and 9-8 to The Colony.

On the field, Rios feels the Lions pitching staff could be the team’s greatest strength as it prepares to pursue a district championship. Seth Owen (3-2, 1.30 ERA), Justin Osteen (2-2), Carson McAnally, Kory Owen and Pablo Salazar will likely see the majority of action on the mound during the 8-3A campaign.

“The kind of hitters we’ve faced has prepared us for district,” Rios said. “That was our goal with the tough non-district schedule we’ve had. Seth has one loss to 5A private school in a 2-1 game and the other loss was to Abilene Wylie, which was 9-1-1 when they came in here to play us and we should have beat them. We’re excited to have him on the mound every other game in district. When he’s on the mound our confidence and approach is very keen.

“Carson has done a tremendous job for us as far as throwing strikes and letting the defense make plays behind him. He gets ahead of hitters and has gotten a lot of ground balls for us. Justin has done a great job for us and does a good job keeping hitters off balance. Kory has given us some strong innings and we’ve also gotten some innings from Pablo in relief, and he’s picked up two saves for us.”

Offensively, the Lions have generated 4.4 runs per game on average with a season-high dozen in a 12-6 win at Glen Rose. Brownwood also reached double figures in a 10-5 victory over Taylor in its finale at the Hill Country Classic.

Top hitters for the Lions include Seth Owen, with a team-best .358 average, while Hayden Day is batting .340 with five hits in his last six at-bats. Elijah Salazar has also chipped in a .283 average and is among Brownwood’s primary run producers.

“I’m excited about how the kids are competing,” Rios said. “They’re starting to be more selective and not swinging at bad pitches like we were are the beginning of the year. Hopefully that will translate into more runs for us.

“Facing the kinds of people we’ve faced at the plate, I’m pleased with what we’ve done and I know we’re going to get better. Not to take anything away from anyone in the district, but we’re not going to be seeing guys throwing in the upper 80s on the mound every game.”

The Lions’ area of greatest concern heading into district is fielding, which Rios expects to see improve as 8-3A play progresses.

“Defensively, I really felt that was the thing we struggled with the most in non-district,” Rios said. “We have some young kids out there and we’re trying to get them to gel and to get used to working with each other. We’ve worked through some things and we’re excited about how they come to work every day. We should have one of the best outfields in the district. The infield is still in the process of coming together and hopefully we’ll be a little more consistent in district.”

As for the 8-3A race itself, Rios anticipates Liberty Hill and Burnet as being the teams to beat.

“Having seen Liberty Hill and Burnet, I would say they are the two front-runners,” Rios said. “We played Liberty Hill in a tournament and lost 11-7, but we threw a lot of different guys. It was a game nobody wanted to show their hand, and I like our chances of facing them with Seth on the mound.

“I saw Burnet play Graham here in a doubleheader over spring break. Burnet is a very sound team that doesn’t beat itself. Those two are ahead of the district as far as consistency goes and after that there’s not much difference. Any team has the opportunity to beat anybody else.”

As for what it will take for the Lions to vault into district championship contention, Rios pointed to eliminating big innings for the opposition as the biggest key.

“Giving up the big inning is what’s hurt us most in non-district,” Rios said. “We have to find a way to stop the bleeding when it gets started, so to speak. We have to keep from giving up big innings. Making routine plays and pitching plays such a huge part. Hopefully we’ll be a little more relaxed going into district.”