It has been six years, but Navarro’s Bulldogs, who last played in the JUCO World Series in 2013, feel like they belong and left town eager to begin their quest for a title.
That journey starts Saturday in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the Dawgs played Chipola in their first game of the double elimination World Series.
“They put in all the hard work and effort to get here,” said Navarro coach Matt Podjenski, who made trips to Grand Junction as an assistant coach in 2011 when the Bulldogs won it all, and again in 2013. “This is what you play for. If you can’t get excited right now you’re never going to get excited.”
Navarro stormed its way to Colorado by sweeping through the Region XIV Tournament and winning the Southern District title
The Dawgs are riding a nine-game winning streak and have won 12 of their last 13 and 19 of the last 22 games.
“We just want to keep it going,” Podjenski said. “This team has gone through a lot. We’ve had a lot of adversity, and that adversity has made us stronger. We started out slow and we had a lot of injuries, but we stuck with what we had and stuck with each other, and believe in each other.”
The bond the players have has been building all year and they made the trip to Colorado as one.
“We have a strong bond,” said Cash Rugely, who led Navarro with a .406 batting average with six homers and 33 RBIs. He scored a team-high 52 runs and had a 1.116 OPS and was the Region XIV East Zone Player of the Year. “That bond has been there and a big reason we won.”
Rugely is just one of a long list of players who had big years, and everyone in the lineup has been hitting down the stretch.
The Bulldogs hit .281 as a team and scored 390 runs this season, averaging almost seven runs a game.
They were even better in the Region Tournament, where they hit .366 (49-for-134) over the four games in the tournament, scoring 43 runs.
“When I step on the mound I know I’ve got a great defense behind me, and I know these guys are going to hit,” said Carson Rollins, who is 9-0 with a 2.74 ERA this season.
Rollins has been the ace of a staff deep in talent. Austin Faith (7-4, 3.89 ERA) and Collin Storms (5-1, 3.28 ERA) will be counted on in Colorado.
Closer Pepper Jones is another big reason the Bulldogs made it to the JUCO World Series. Jones has nine saves and he has struck out 40 batters in 25 innings.
But as Rollins points out, the Dawgs made it this far by playing tough baseball and not making mistakes.
“We do the little things,” he said. “And we’re never out of a game. We believe in each other.”
The Bulldogs have proven time and again they can come back, and with a lineup full of clutch hitters they never get down.
“We’ve got hitters 1 through 9 in the lineup who can hit,” said Kyle Landers, a sophomore who is hitting .317 with three homers and 42 RBIs. “We’re an aggressive offense and by playing that way we put a lot of pressure on teams.”
Landers has stolen 22 bases for a team that likes to run, and can score runs in bunches.
Despite playing in a ball park that is anything but home run friendly, Podjenski’s team scores like crazy. Two of the team’s biggest hitters are local products.
Stacey Bailey, who is from Kerens, and Dawson Woods, who was a star catcher at Corsicana High, have come in as freshman and felt right at home at the plate.
Bailey leads the team with nine homers and a whopping 64 RBIs while batting .326. Woods has been rock-solid behind the plate and has been raking at the plate. He’s hitting .345 with 10 doubles, a homer and he’s driven in 38 runs.
“It’s been a great year,” Woods said. “We felt confident about getting (to the World Series) and we’re going into it with a lot of confidence.
They should feel confident, especially the way the team has come through in the clutch.
“The last couple of weeks we’ve been getting a lot of two-out hits,” Landers said. “It doesn’t matter who is up, everyone has come through this year.”
The Bulldogs also feel they have something to prove.
“People are saying we had an easy district, and saying we had an easy time getting (to the World Series) because San Jac was ineligible,” Landers said. “We’re hearing that kind of stuff all year, so we’ve got a bit a chip on our shoulder. I feel as a team we’re underrated.”
Underrated or not, Navarro is confident of winning it all.
“We definitely want to bring the (World Series title) back like they did in 2011,” Rugely said. “We want to bring back the glory to the city.”