Just call it “The Move.”
It was one of those inside baseball decisions, a gamble and a plan that didn't come overnight, but came just in time to change the face of the Dawson Bulldogs and help ignite their season.
There's a long list of reasons about how and why Dawson put together the best season in the school's history, about how these kids and coaches came together to make a magical run in the playoffs that earned them their first trip to the state tournament, where they met Douglass Wednesday morning.
Somewhere on the list is “The Move.”
“It wasn't an easy decision,'' said first-year Coach Chris Sexton, who changed three positions on the diamond with a domino move that gave the Bulldogs a new look on defense
. “I talked to my assistant coach John Miller about it and it took us a few days to finally decide to do it.’’ he said. “It was a decision I didn't make easily.''
The key to the move was Mason Burleson, who had never been a catcher in high school.
“Mason had caught very little (growing up) but one day I put him back there in a scrimmage situation,'' Sexton said. “He made the play on every bunt, and every time someone tried to steal he threw the ball well.''
That's when Sexton and Miller started talking about moving the pieces to the puzzle. They put Burleson behind the plate and moved senior Dalton Long from catcher to left field, and moved left fielder Seth Lachney from left field to third base.
“I talked to John Miller about it, and we thought it would make us better defensively, and more athletic,'' Sexton said.
If you want to know how well Burleson has played behind the plate, just ask the Gorman team that fell to Dawson 7-0 in the Region II-1A semifinal.
“Gorman came into that game with a reputation for stealing bases,'' Sexton said. “And early in the game they tried to steal with one of their best base runners and Mason threw him out.''
That set the tone for the game and Gorman's plan to steal on Dawson was all but shelved.
Dawson's run to the state tournament has been fueled by great pitching and great defense, and when Sexton looks back on the season, he realizes just how significant the move was to his team. The infield and outfield changed dramatically during the season in part because of early injuries to shortstop Jared Gray and Brandon Cehand, a left-handed pitcher who alternates at first base with pitcher Trent Underwood. Both Gray and Cehand had torn ACL injuries from football season and didn't join the baseball team until the middle of district play.
That's about the same time Sexton made the move with Burleson, Long and Lachney, with a wall behind the plate and solid corners of the infield with Lachney, a tough as nails sophomore third baseman who has quickness and a strong arm, and Cehand, one of three seniors who is an anchor at first along with Underwood, another unflappable senior.
Lachney is so tough and determined that when he was drilled in the shoulder with foul ball line drive in the on-deck circle that sounded like a gun shot when the ball hit, he refused to come out of the game against Gorman. He said he couldn't come out, because he “wanted to finish,” and it's that kind of grit and courage that has defined this run in the playoffs. Lachney epitomizes the character of the Hold the Rope Bulldogs, who have taken those words and turned them into a way of life for a bunch of kids and coaches who believe in one another.
Every player on the roster has stepped up at one time or another.
While Gray, who was a Golden Circle co-defensive player of the year as a sophomore, was out, his younger brother Justin played shortstop, and when Jared returned, Justin moved to second base, where he had played most of his baseball life.
“Justin is a lot more comfortable at second base,'' Jared said. “He kept asking me, When are you coming back? When are you coming back?'”
Dawson's middle infield — the Gray Area — has been remarkable with a veteran at short and a freshman who plays like a senior at second.
“Jared has great range,'' Sexton said. “He gets to balls a lot of people can't get to, and once he gets there he has such a strong arm he can make those plays.
“Justin was a little uncomfortable at shortstop because he has always played second,'' Sexton said. “When Jared came back and Justin moved to second his confidence went through the roof. It sky-rocketed. Justin as a freshman has stepped up in a big way. He doesn't play like a freshman.''
Long can play anywhere, and he's such a team player and team leader he just adapted to left field immediately and an outfield that was filled with uncertainty at the beginning of the season when Sexton played a variety of players there has grown into one of the best in all of Class 1A.
Lane Dotson, who was a Golden Circle player as a freshman, covers a ton of ground in center and Conner McEntire has been dynamic in right field. He made the play of the game against Gorman, backing up a throw past first and firing a strike to Jared Gray at to nail the runner at second base in a momentum killing play.
Dotson has made one big play after another all year in center, but none bigger than in last week's 3-0 win over Trenton in the Region II-1A final that sent Dawson to state. In a close, tight-fisted game and a runner at second, Dotson ran down and made a brilliant catch of a sinking liner to save a run with the play of the game. No one in the Dawson dugout was surprised.
“Whenever there is a ball hit to the center field area we just say, 'We have a Dotson,'” Sexton said. “And we say, 'We have a Long,' or 'We have a McEntire.'”
That's life at Dawson, where it's all about pitching and defense. The Bulldogs have allowed just six runs in five playoff games against some of the best teams in Texas and haven't allowed a run in their last two games, pitching 14 consecutive shutout innings.
“Our pitchers know they can pitch with confidence because of the defense behind them,'' Sexton said. “They know if a ball is in play that they are going to make a play, and that takes the pressure off our pitchers
“At the beginning of the year I couldn't say that,'' he said. “At the beginning we were struggling defensively. We got healthy and those guys worked their tails off to get better. Now the pitchers know they have a great defense behind them that's going to make plays.''
That goes hand in hand with Dawson's Hold the Rope mantra. The Hold the Rope kids believe in each other and count on and trust each other.
“It's an amazing feeling knowing each and every player at every position has your back and that they will make the play,'' said Underwood, who has given up just one earned run in four playoff starts. “That's the best feeling you can have. When the ball is hit I know they are going to make the play.''
Underwood remembers when Sexton made the domino move.
“I think it really did help us and made us defensively stronger,'' Underwood said. “It really helped us in the long run. I think Mason does a tremendous job behind the plate and Dalton has been great in the outfield and Seth has been great at third base. I think from where we started at the beginning of the year to where we are now that we have come leaps and bounds.''
And landed at state.
Just call it “The Move.”
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