Heath Autrey's eyes told the story. The whole story.
Tears always do.
Autrey's Tigers had just beaten Midlothian to win the Region Championship and earn a trip to the state tournament in Round Rock – the first trip to the baseball state tournament since the black-and-white, I like Ike Tigers of 1958 made it to the state title game 61 years ago.
“This team's like us,” said Derwood “Pops” Penney, who played second base for the '58 Tigers. “They're Corsicana Boys.”
Sure, a tear slipped down Autrey's eye. He couldn't fight it, and he sure couldn't stop it. Kind of like the feeling this town has for this team...
That's what happens when it gets this big, this real and this wonderful.
Gotta love the Corsicana Boys.
The only thing better than a high school team going to state is a high school team going to state with the whole town riding along.
And you're going to be there Thursday afternoon. Even if you can't make the trip down I-35, you'll be there, and these kids know it.
Yup, Tiger fans throw every pitch, and they will be on the mound with Micah Burke Thursday when the Tiger ace faces Colleyville Heritage at Dell Diamond for a chance to lay for the state title Saturday. And there will be plenty of Tigers in the stands Thursday.
Hundreds of fans can now drive from Collin Street to Dallas Baptist University without a GPS. Heck, most could make the trip blindfolded after watching the Tigers win eight of their 10 playoff games at DBU, their home away from home.
These kids know you are going to be there for them. They've seen it. They've felt it.
Did you see the way these kids yelled and jumped up and down and stuck their heads out the bus window when the folks showed up at the Tiger send-offs at Beaton and Forrest?
The send-offs were fun, and folks were there at the same corner late Friday night when the bus came back from sweeping Midlothian — right there in the darkness at Tiger Corner, yelling and cheering and welcoming home a bunch of kids who never dreamed they would have such a bus ride.
Nope, if you would have asked them before the season started, no one on this team would have predicted a trip to state.
“When we lost our first scrimmage to Duncanville, I was thinking, 'It's going to be a long season,''' said Ty Nolen at practice this week.
That Nolen knows how to predict the future.
Turns out, it was the longest season of his life.
Nolen's grandkids will know this story. So will Micah Burke's and Devan Lindsey's and Miguel Luevano’s and right down the lineup. It's their story. They wrote with a pen we didn't even know they had.
Someone asked me this week if I thought they would be this good before the season started.
Honestly, I thought they would be good, and maybe real good, but I also thought they may not get out of the district and make the playoffs. That's how ridiculously stacked 14-5A was this year. Six of the seven teams went to the playoffs last year and Cleburne started the year ranked No. 2 in state.
I thought the Tigers might have a really good team and not make the playoffs. That's what happened – to Red Oak and Ennis, two teams good enough to get to the postseason that didn't make it.
Burke was so positive before the season started he said: “We're going to show the teams in District 14-5A what Tiger baseball is all about.”
He was right. The Tigers beat everyone at least once, and when they came back twice to beat Red Oak, those two games defined the district and changed their season.
“That was the turning point of the year,” said assistant coach Brian Nolen, who announced he was retiring from coaching before the season started. “When we came back and won both of those Red Oak games that changed the season for us.”
If you noticed the words 'came back' in that sentence you know exactly what he's talking about because that's the Tigers' middle name these days.
“Beating Red Oak, that gave us confidence,” said Lindsey, “and that confidence just kept growing.”
That confidence is the heartbeat of this team. The team's pulse is in how the kids feel about each other. They're not only close, but they believe in each other and cheer like crazy for each other. There's not a selfish bat in the Tigers' dugout.
Ask Nolen, a four-year starter who is an anchor at first base, what the biggest difference in this year's Tiger team and the other is, and he doesn't hesitate.
“Chemistry,” he said in a blink. “We have such great chemistry, such a strong bond.”
Did you see the Tigers lose to Lone Star 13-0 in the second game of the Region semifinals? Made you sick, right. Got you down, didn't it?
You can't get kicked in the stomach with a loss like that and have anything left can you? I always tell Red Sox fans, sure Bill Buckner didn't make the play against the Mets in the '86 World Series, but there was a Game 7 the next day. Steve Bartman and the 2003 Cubs? Same thing. There was a Game 7 the next day.
But those teams couldn't regroup. Couldn't get past it. They didn't have what these Tigers have.
You should have been on the Tigers' bus on the ride after they lost that 13-0 game.
“We weren't down. We were joking and talking about winning the next game,” Burke said. “We knew we could come back.”
“That game was behind us,” Lindsey added. “We lost, but now it was time to win the final game and take the series. We knew we could do it, and forgot about that (13-0) game.”
Were you at Price Field for the Area round game against Lindale? It was a one game, winner-take all deal, and it was cooler than usual that night — a kind of a strange chill that was a backdrop for the nightmare on the field. It felt like a Murphy's Law game all night, just a bad feeling (I've seen Lindale beat the Tigers too many times in games Corsicana should have won), and when Lindale went up 5-1 it looked like it was over for the Tigers. They went to the bottom of the sixth with six outs left in their season and you could feel that anxious, nervousness in the packed crowd at Price. Lindale fans were already celebrating.
Then a Tiger got on base, and the wind blew a popup just out of reach of the Lindale first baseman, then a walk, and before you knew it the Tigers had a run in and the bases loaded. Up steps Luevano (the freshman!) and he rips a three-run triple and it's tied 5-5. Burke bats next and drives an RBI single into center. (Did you know Burke is hitting .529 in the playoffs?)
The Price crowd is going crazy and the Tigers just keep scoring. Eight runs later they take the field for the seventh with Kolby Kinkade dealing on the mound. Kolby slams the door. It's a 9-5 win that has nothing to do with business as usual, and it's back to DBU for the Region Quarterfinals.
“We were never down in the dugout,” Luevano said after the game. “Everybody was thinking we're going to come back and win it. Nobody got down. Nobody was hanging their head.”
That's who these Tigers are. They believe they're going to win, but more importantly, they believe in each other.
“In that game (Lindale) we were just waiting for that one hit to get it going and change the game,” said Lindsey, who has more big hits than you can count. Consider this: He hit one home all year in the regular season. He's hit three in 11 playoff games and missed a fourth by inches.
“We know we can come back,” said Blake Hoffman, who has been a big part of this team after taking a break from football and joining the Tigers on the diamond last year. “This has been so much fun. I honestly thought we were going to be good this year, and thought we would get to the third round of the playoffs. I just didn't think we would get to state.
“But once we got in the playoffs we just started beating teams and every time we won we got a little more confident. Every win our confidence was going up and up.”
Lindsey said the district made the Tigers tough.
“We played in the toughest 5A district in Texas,” he said. “We were battled tested in our district and when we got to the playoffs we were ready.”
You can't measure what this team has done in wins and losses, in extra base hits or double plays, and Lord knows they've made double plays (just ask the Lone Star kids who left DBU seeing double after the Tigers turned five double plays against them in Game 3).
There is so much more to this team, and this incredible ride.
They have given the word resilient a whole new meaning, somehow finding more and different ways to come back on their insane roller-coaster trip through the playoffs. It all started in the first game when Burke pitched six scoreless innings against North Forney before Lindsey took over for the seventh to close the game out.
But Lindsey had to leave the mound because of a mound visit violation, and Kinkade, who was in the dugout after pinch-hitting in the sixth, was out of the game. Burke had to come back to the mound from center field in the most bizarre of scenarios and one which tested his arm and mental toughness as much as any every will. But Burke bounced back and got the win and the save in a game that belongs in Ripley's.
And that was just the first game of this winding road that has taken them to Round Rock and into history. Burke's bounce-back set the tone for one come back after another, including two in their sweep over Midlothian in the Region title series last Friday. They even came back to win 2-1 after trailing 1-0 after Burke had tossed a no-hitter for 6 1/3 innings. Call Ripley's on that one, too.
And after getting the wind (and win) knocked out of them in Game 2 when Midlothian came back from 4-0 to knot the score at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh, the Tigers shook it right off and sent eight to the plate in the eighth, and scored three "take that" runs to win 7-4.
They keep getting knocked down, and somehow they keep getting back up.
Believe it or not, they have already been knocked flat on their feet again, and they haven't even thrown a pitch against Colleyville Heritage.
You know what's going on. Everyone has already given Heritage the victory in the semifinals because the Panthers are ranked No. 6 in the nation by USA Today and because their shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr., is the top high school player in the country and the No. 2 pick in the MLB draft on Monday night.
But the Corsicana Boys have each other, and they've got Autrey. I heard another high school coach talking the other saying "If there's a coach who can beat Colleyville Heritage, It's Heath Autrey."
Couldn't agree more. Autrey's that guy. He knows the game, really knows the game, and respects it like few do. He sees and feels three-four moves ahead during the game, and has that rarest of gifts between games, because above all, he knows how to teach, to take the most difficult game we play and explain it in ways high school kids can not only understand, but absorb.
His teams always play the game the right way, and know why -- and that's a joy for them, and a joy to watch. And Autrey always builds character along the way and does what every coach aspires to do: He gets the most out of whatever he has. Always.
The kids call him "The Wizard," "The Wiz."
And now his kids have finally reached the state tournament, Texas high school baseball's Land of Oz.
They enjoyed every minute of the ride.
You should have heard these kids laughing after practice Tuesday, talking about how hitting coach Bo Moore taught them “Japanese techniques” in hitting.
“That's our secret,” Burke said, “weird Japanese hitting drills.”
These kids laugh like they play — hard and loud, holding nothing back.
That's the way they will play Thursday. That's the way they'll come at No. 6 in the nation. They'll come hard and they'll come together. That's how they arrived in Round Rock — Together.
Bet that bus ride to Round Rock was a good one. Bet no one's head was down. Bet there was plenty of hard laughs and high hopes for a team that just keeps looking up.
There's just something about these kids.
You gotta love those Corsicana Boys...