- Jeff Miller
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In a couple of households in Pearland, the excitement of reaching Texas' state baseball tournament is coupled with a horsehide version of those "back in the day" stories.
The Pearland Oilers are making the unlikely trip to the Austin area to face Lufkin in the first of Friday's Class 5A semifinals. Unlikely in that they won Region III, which most followers of Texas high school baseball probably had ceded to any number of Houston-area schools along the way. Bellaire was ranked No. 1 by ESPN RISE going into Texas' University Interscholastic League playoffs four weeks ago. Memorial (Houston) wasn't far behind until it lost to Bellaire. Then, Brazoswood (Clute) picked up the 5A mantle after knocking off Bellaire.
Then, Pearland completed its regional run by downing Brazoswood to take a 30-7-1 record into Friday's game. Oilers senior second baseman/designated hitter Reece Riddle was almost apologetic in explaining Pearland's victory in this past weekend's regional finals.
"We were thinking Bellaire was going to win the whole time," Riddle said. "We were getting ready to face them. They [the Brazoswood Buccaneers] were a little intimidating."
Pearland, located on the southern edge of Houston, has grown since Riddle's father, Larry, was a pitcher/outfielder on the Oilers' last state championship team. That was in 1980, or as Reece noted, "a long time ago."
Junior right-handed pitcher Shane Michna is the son of '80 Oilers center fielder Mark Michna.
"They're talking about how we have to live up to their expectations -- can't let our dads down," Reece Riddle said with a laugh. "[They] said something about [facing] some big pitcher from San Antonio who was supposed to shut 'em down, and they went out there and scored like four runs in the first inning. We faced Tyler Green from Brazoswood. First inning, we put up five runs."
Riddle said his father usually roams behind the backstop during games rather than plant himself in one place. His mom, Theresa, is in her second tour of duty as part of Pearland baseball support. As a senior in high school, she kept the team's stats. Now she's president of the booster club and runs the team's Web site.
Larry Riddle and Mark Michna are active in the Pearland baseball community and coaching various summer teams.
"This is a good, solid group," Mark Michna said of the 2009 Oilers. "Everybody in this lineup can hit."
Pearland coach Ben Pardo expressed admiration and appreciation for the involvement of the players' fathers.
"Dads are very involved in the program," Pardo said. "They're always around. They help with our summer league teams. They enjoy the moment. It's nice to be able to connect that way, son and dad."
As for seeking the first state title since some players' fathers brought first-place medals home from Austin, Pardo added, "Here's an opportunity for the next generation. That's kind of neat for the families and for the community."
Pearland finished second in District 22-5A, three games behind La Porte. But the Oilers handed La Porte its only district loss, rallying late and winning in eight innings in late March.
Pardo pointed to the following win, over Memorial (Pasadena), as one that possibly put Pearland on the right track. The Oilers held on late to win 4-3 and avoided dropping to 2-2 in district play.
Pearland has been the highest scoring 5A team in the playoffs. In the opening three-game series with Sterling (Baytown), the Oilers scored 47 runs. As the underdogs against Channelview in the regional semifinals, they rolled 12-4 and 11-1 in a run-rule finish. They swept Katy 11-9 and 6-3, then faced the Brazoswood Bucs.
As for intimidation, Pearland and Brazoswood played in the same district the past four seasons to gain a measure of familiarity. And the Oilers beat the Bucs 11-9 this year in a nondistrict game in early March.
Pearland opened the series with a surprising 1-0 squeaker, then outlasted Brazoswood 11-8 in a game similar to the regular-season meeting.
Sure, Pearland can score. But it isn't devoid of pitching. Pardo will choose from among four starters who will face Lufkin (29-9). Junior left-hander Matt Rhodes stands at the top of the rotation. In the 1-0 win over Brazoswood, Rhodes threw a six-hitter.
"In the predistrict, we tried to get as much experience as we could with different pitchers, keep arms as strong as possible," Pardo said. "We don't have the 93 [mph], 94 power guy. We play good defense and get good pitching, hopefully score enough runs to win."
That plan has worked so far in getting the Oilers to their first state tournament since 1984.
As for the 1980 team, Larry Riddle tells of how the team met the mayor and was treated to a big dinner on the gulf when it returned home with the crown.
This year's squad will be looking to create its own stories to tell.
Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.