JOHNSON CITY -- Luke Neely and 10 of his teammates graduated from high school here last week, but he and his fellow Eagles keep flocking back to campus.
Johnson City players, left to right, Luke Neely, Kris McDonald and Laramie Blackwell started as freshmen in 2008 on a team that reached the regional semifinals. photos by Larry Kolvoord / Austin American-Statesman
These 11 seniors have not retired their school colors yet because they are still playing baseball. Tonight in San Antonio, Johnson City will face Shiner in the opener of a Class A regional championship series .
Two wins over the Comanches will send Johnson City to the UIL state tournament for the first time since 1980.
"It's awesome," Neely said. "You don't have to go to school and you just have to show up to practice."
With seven seniors in the everyday lineup, Johnson City coach Randy Rutherford said he has barely tinkered with his batting order since the team's first game in February. The Eagles are 29-5 this season and won the District 29-A championship before compiling a 6-1 record in the playoffs. They have outscored their postseason opponents 59-26.
Not including a forfeit by Rocksprings , Johnson City has scored 10.5 runs per game this season. The team, however, has been led by a deep pitching staff.
Johnson City has ridden the arms of Laramie Blackwell and Dylan Carter during the playoffs. The duo has combined for six wins in the postseason, and the Eagles have allowed only four earned runs over their past four games.
Senior pitcher Cody Smith was tagged with the team's only playoff loss, but he also has won seven games this season. Neely and freshman Garrett Deleon have each won three games this season, and although senior center fielder Kris McDonald hasn't pitched much this spring, Rutherford said McDonald won eight games as a freshman.
"Pitching definitely (has been a strength)," Blackwell said. "We have a good defense to back it up."
Laramie Blackwell is one of Johnson City's top pitchers and he credits the team's defense as well.
The seeds for this year's playoff run were planted in the spring of 2008, when Rutherford's lineup included five freshmen -- McDonald, Carter, Neely, Blackwell and Cody Crofts, now a starting second baseman. That season, Johnson City lost in the regional semifinals to a Flatonia team that reached the Class A state title game.
Johnson City moved up to Class 2A the following school year as a result of UIL realignment, and the Eagles were eliminated in the first round of the baseball playoffs. Last season, Johnson City took Rogers to three games in an area playoff series before being ousted by the eventual 2A state champion .
Realignment bumped Johnson City back down to Class A this past February, and the Eagles are one of the three Central Texas baseball teams that advanced to the regional semifinals this season while playing in a new classification.
Cameron Yoe, which has a 32-7 record and will play Weimar in a regional championship series, was moved down to Class 2A for the first time since the 1979-80 school year. Salado, which won a Class 2A baseball championship in 2008, lost to Columbia in the regional semifinals and was District 25-3A's second-place finisher in its Class 3A debut.
In Class A, Johnson City has faced teams with shallower rosters and pitching staffs. Still, the Eagles haven't noticed that much of a change on the field.
"It's made a difference," McDonald said of the drop to Class A. "It's mostly in your head, though."
Added Rutherford: "When you get this deep in the playoffs, you get right back to where you were."
UIL Regional Finals - CLASS A
Johnson City vs. Shiner:
Game 1, 7 p.m. today (Blossom Athletic Center, San Antonio);
Game 2, 7 p.m. Friday (Blossom Athletic Center, San Antonio);
Game 3, 4 p.m. Saturday (Blossom Athletic Center, San Antonio), if necessary