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High School  | General  | 2/12/2020

Carroll eyes a Texas 3-peat

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: Yanluis Ortiz (Southlake Carroll HS Baseball

Texahoma Region PreviewTexahoma Top Teams, Prospects

The Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association (THSBCA) held its annual convention in Waco Jan. 9-10, and for a second straight year Southlake Carroll HS head coach Larry Vucan found himself front and center.

Day one at the convention traditionally opens with the head coaches from the six schools that won state championships (Classes 1A-6A) the previous season participating in a series of panel discussions.

Vucan had guided the Dragons to a second Class 6A title in 2019, meaning he would be part of the group that also included D’Hanis HS’s Todd Craft (1A), Big Sandy’s Jacob Hooker (2A), Wall’s Jason Schniers (3A), Argyle’s Ricky Griffin (4A) and Colleyville Heritage’s Allen McDougal (5A).

It’s a noteworthy accomplishment to land in that championship coaches’ group even once, let alone two years running. And while Vucan was both honored and humbled by the recognition, he also decided to use the occasion to focus on what lies ahead instead of what was already in the past. And, for that reason, he decided to leave his 2019 Texas State Championship ring back home in Southlake.

“I had a reporter come up and ask me why I didn’t wear my state championship ring,” Vucan told Perfect Game during a telephone conversation late last week. “I wasn’t trying to be funny or anything like that but I do believe it. It’s because it’s no longer 2019. It’s 2020 and nobody cares.

“So that’s my message; that’s what I preach or what I try to preach,” he continued. “We use the (phrase) don’t get fat, dumb and happy. Stay locked-in and focused on being a great teammate and on improving every day and getting the most out of every practice.”

Message received. The Dragons, who finished at No. 22 in last year’s final PG High School Top 50 National Rankings after landing at No. 11 in 2018, open this season at No. 7 in the 2020 PG HS Preseason Rankings; they are the highest ranked outfit from PG HS’s Texahoma Region.

It only makes sense. Carroll returns nine starters and more than a half-dozen other players who enjoyed prominent roles on last year’s 33-11 state championship ballclub. Twelve seniors serve as the leaders of the pack, veterans that have helped the program compile a 100-28-1 overall record since their freshman season in 2017. The Dragons won Texas 6A state titles in 2018 and 2019 and were a semifinalist in 2017.

Catcher Yanluis Ortiz, a Miami signee ranked No. 173 in the 2020 national class, has emerged as a force both at the plate and behind it. Uncommitted first baseman/right-hander Gerardo Cuevas is ranked No. 269 in the 2020 class and outfielder Homer Bush is a Grand Canyon U. recruit ranked No. 397.

Outfielder/corner-infielder Brandon Howell (Tulane), infielder/right-hander Grant Golomb (Baylor), infielder Cade Manning (Texas State), right-hander Kaden Calkins (McClennan CC), infielder/right-hander Paul Bonzagni (St. Edwards U.) and righty/infielder Ryan Pehrson are all top 500-ranked seniors.

Senior outfielder Justin Grech, a top-1,000 Lafayette College recruit, was named the MVP of last year’s state championship game which Carroll won by a 17-0 count over Fort Bend Ridge Point. Howell, Manning, Thomas Wrehe and Riley Garcia also enjoyed big days during the championship game romp and all are back for their senior seasons this spring.

“When I was named the head coach in July (2016) we had our first summer camp and that group (of current seniors) were incoming freshman,” Vucan said. “That group, essentially, has known nothing but the state tournament. It’s been a group that has understood the expectations and has met them … and they just don’t know anything else.”

Truth be told, the younger players on the roster don’t know anything else either, and they form a pretty talented group themselves. Sophomore left-hander/outfielder/infielder Griffin Herring (LSU) is ranked No. 118 nationally in the class of 2022. The coaching staff could also be looking for a contribution from top freshman right-hander Jared White (Arkansas, No. 139 class of 2023).

Vucan arrived at Carroll in 2011 after enjoying a successful eight-year stint at El Paso Franklin HS. He came on board as the Dragons’ pitching coach, a position he held for five years until being elevated to the head coaching position when long-time Carroll coach Larry Hughes retired.

The transition was seamless and the continuity paid immediate dividends. Carroll finished 32-11-1 after advancing to the 6A state semifinals in 2017, went 35-6 while winning the 6A state championship in 2018 and followed that up with a 33-11 season and a second straight state championship last season.

The Dragons were deep with veteran talent during the 2018 campaign and the state championship was a suitable by-product of that. But the team lost 22 seniors to graduation from that team and didn’t return a single starter, which made the 2019 state championship run something to really savor and appreciate.

“I think what’s happened is just a consistent approach and a mentality of work-win,” Vucan said of the Dragons’ recipe for success. “It’s not that much different from anybody else; I just think we’re very fortunate with the kids that we have. They bought into the philosophy and they’ve understood the offensive side of it to put pressure on the defense and then run, run, run, run. We’ve unleashed the athleticism in the kids and that’s helped a lot here.”

The Southlake Carroll Independent School District is interesting in that every elementary school and every middle school, along with the high school – which has a 9th-10th grade campus and a 11th-12th grade campus – uses the Dragons mascot; the logo and color scheme is the same at every school. Even the Southlake little league team carries the Dragons name and wears green-and-black uniforms.

“I know it’s overused a lot, but they really are a tight-knit group and they have been for a long time; they played together before they even got here,” Vucan said. “They grow up with it and I think it’s just the culture of the place and the philosophy of the place.

“I wish I could take credit for it but that has nothing to do with me; they work their butts off,” he added. “I’ve always said that Southlake is definitely a white-collar community with a blue-collar mentality.”

It seems inevitable that adversity will raise its ugly head at some point this season and Vucan welcomes that. In making his point, he used last season’s schedule as an example.

The Dragons started the 2019 campaign at a high-profile tournament in San Jose, Calif., where they faced traditional California powers Valley Christian and Orange Lutheran, among others. They went 1-4 in their five games on the West Coast and then lost two more once they got home to start the season – a state championship season – at 1-6.

“We didn’t have anybody back (from 2018) … so we were trying different lineups and playing a lot of different guys,” Vucan said. “We were just trying to test and see who could handle the adversity.”

Don’t expect that to change this season, either. Even though this year’s roster is as experienced as last year’s was inexperienced, once the team gets down to El Paso for the start of the regular season, Vucan is going to roll the dice.

“We’re going to play a bunch of guys, we’re going to give people opportunities and we’re going to see who can handle it and who can perform,” he said. “It’s about performance and if you don’t perform you can’t expect to be out there.”

The Dragons decided to get game-ready for the start of the 2020 regular season by playing a series of scrimmages against other teams right there in the area.

The seven-game “scrimmage season” includes contests with perennial Texas state powers Arlington Martin, Euless Trinity, PG No. 48-ranked Flower Mound (Texas), Allen (Texas), Prosper (Texas) and Flower Mound Marcus. It started on Saturday (Feb. 8) and runs through Feb. 25.

The team will then head down to El Paso where it will officially kick-off the regular season with six games in three days (Feb. 27-29) before returning to Southlake for a double-header with Wakeland/Aledo.

Even with all the success the seniors have enjoyed with the two state championships and another final four finish in each of their first three seasons, Vucan senses they’re still hungry. The challenge now is for them to remain that way as the season unfolds with both internal and external expectations higher than ever before.

“Right now, the talent and the ability and the aptitude is there and now it’s maintaining the work-win mentality and the focus, and it has been a little bit of a challenge, to be honest with you” he said.

This is a team that is “definitely ready to get after it” after days of practice and intrasquad scrimmages, Vucan said, although there have been some injury issues. One of the players who will be out is starting center fielder Jaxon Osterberg, a top-500 senior who could miss up to two months with a knee injury.

“Other than that, we’re really excited; the guys are fired-up,” Vucan said. “We’ve had a good fall and now we just have to guard against some of the entitlement mentality with regard to winning (state championships) the last couple of years. That’s always going to be the challenge.”

While declaring that he absolutely means no disrespect to Perfect Game or any other outlet that compiles preseason rankings, Vucan doesn’t really pay attention to any of it. It’s nice, he admitted, to be recognized in February and he and his players feel “blessed” and “fortunate” but the only time a lofty ranking will really matter is in June.

“We began January 31st and we hope to end June 6th or 7th,” he said. “We’ve just got to take a breath and try to worry about the day-to-day.”

Worrying about the day-to-day has certainly been a successful method of operation for the Southlake Carroll Dragons. What’s most important, according to Vucan, is that these players continue to guard against the idea that they’re entitled to anything. Winning 100 games from 2017 through 2019 is impressive and noteworthy but that’s where it ends.

If the Dragons could have somehow flipped a 3-2 loss to Deer Park in the semifinal round of the 2017 state tournament into a victory, they might be shooting for a four-peat this spring instead of a three-peat.

That’s water under the bridge and if the three-peat comes in 2020 instead of 2019, it will be welcomed and celebrated. And, hey, maybe Vucan will wear his state championship ring to the 2021 THSBCA convention. There’s much to be done, of course, but this group of Dragons is nothing if not winners.

“We always start the day by saying ‘win practice’ and then win the classroom and then win being a great kid at home with your parents and win being a great servant to God,” Vucan said. “If you win and you have that approach and that mindset then you have a chance to build-up a lot of momentum with that.”