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Plano staying true to identity during dramatic playoff run



PLANO, TX – For Plano head baseball coach Rick Cremer, it was during the fall when he began to shape his vision for the Wildcats.

It was a feeling that if Plano could impose its grinding style of play — lean on pitching and defense while staying true to doing the little things at the plate — that the Wildcats had the potential to hang with any team in the state.

Cremer saw glimpses of that promise during a grueling District 6-6A schedule and is now watching his Plano squad reap the benefits during the postseason.

On Thursday, the Wildcats will take the field at Dallas Baptist University for the regional quarterfinal round of the playoffs — a stage the program hasn’t competed on since 2014. Plano is doing so as a No. 4 seed, something only three other teams in the entire 128-team Class 6A bracket can claim.

It’s the way the Wildcats have forged that path that has left an indelible mark in Cremer’s first year at the helm.

“We did just enough to get us into the playoffs and have been rolling these last couple weeks,” Cremer said. “We’ve caught some breaks and made some as well. It’s exciting.”

Cremer joked that the Wildcats’ area-round series against South Grand Prairie aged him a bit, as Plano mustered two come-from-behind victories chalked in late-game heroics. In Game 1, the Wildcats trailed 3-0 through six innings only to conjure three runs in the top of the seventh — all three scored with two outs — before sending the ballgame into extra innings. Junior Troy Piesker came through in the 10th frame with an RBI single to lift Plano to a 4-3 victory.

The following night, SGP was in front heading into the bottom of the seventh inning 2-1, only for Wildcat senior Jason Hawkins to belt a two-run home run over the left-field fence to walk off the ballgame and win the series for Plano.

“To be a fan at those two games, it must have just been awesome. You don’t want to live like that too often, having to come back like that against a quality team like South Grand Prairie,” Cremer said. “There was a little luck involved and a little bit of everything, but in the playoffs all you’re trying to do is give yourself a chance to strike at the end of the game. We did that.”

Getting to that point has required a series of airtight efforts on the mound, and Cremer lauded the persistence of Plano’s starting pitching during the postseason — senior Blake Van Cleve and sophomore Kyle Bade have a combined 2.11 ERA alongside 27 strikeouts and nine walks.

That duo has enjoyed a lift from senior Jacob Prokarym, who has thrown 9.2 innings in relief during the postseason and is yet to allow a run.

As that pitching meshes with a lineup that has showcased a comfort for executing in high-leverage situations of late, Cremer also credits a rough-and-tumble 6-6A schedule for preparing his team for the postseason.

“If you go through the teams we had to play in our district, and I know I’m biased, but I thought it was one of the best baseball districts in the state based on pedigree alone,” Cremer said. “Going through that district, you come off with a bit of an edge.

“Getting into the playoffs and playing other really good, well-coached programs, I feel like going through our district hardens you a bit to withstand some of that pressure that playoff baseball brings.”

That district has gone a ways to validate that strength, with three of the league’s four playoff qualifiers still playing this week. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, extending their season another week will mean going through the best team to emerge from 6-6A.

On deck for Plano on Thursday is Marcus, ranked No. 3 in 6A in the Diamond Pro/THSB top 25 and riding a 14-game winning streak. The Marauders won both regular-season meetings against the Wildcats — the only team in 6-6A to sweep Plano — but Cremer still sees plenty to draw from.

The Wildcats let a 3-1 lead slip away in their first outing with Marcus on March 23, a 4-3 loss decided in walk-off fashion, before suffering just their second shutout defeat of the year on March 26 in a 4-0 setback.

“I’m excited about this matchup and I think our kids are excited as well,” Cremer said. “We dropped two to them back in the second week of district. I think the kids are excited to see where we’re at, because I think we’ve grown as a team since the start of district and have been battle-tested the last few weeks, for sure.

“If you’re going to advance, playing a team like Marcus with the caliber of players they do is as good a test as any to see where you’re at.”

Like Plano, the Marauders have had plenty of success muzzling opposing lineups during their win streak. They’ve allowed just 1.9 runs per game during their 14-game surge, thanks in part to the one-two punch of pitchers Tate Evans and Tyler Schott. That duo has a 1.73 ERA in the postseason and has totaled 36 strikeouts to just four walks.

“They spot up very well and aren’t one-dimensional. They know how to pitch,” Cremer said. “We’ve seen guys whose stuff is really, really good but they’re more a thrower than a pitcher. That’s not the case with Marcus pitchers. They know how to change speeds and elevate the eye level. It’s going to take a lot of focus at the plate and the ability to adjust from pitch to pitch.”

Ultimately, Cremer said, Plano’s prospects of turning the tables on state-ranked Marcus will boil to the same recipe that has forged the program’s deepest playoff run in seven years. The Wildcats and Marauders square off at 8 p.m. Thursday at DBU for Game 1 with Game 2 scheduled for 5 p.m. Friday. If necessary, Game 3 will take place at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve preached all year long the concept of small ball and doing your job — making sure you get on top of the ball and move you a runner with a grounder or score that person,” Cremer said. “Doing the little things like that is the DNA of this team. We know we have to grind teams out and they’ve really bought into that throughout the year.”