3-5A West winning arms race

Published 5:45 pm Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Warren Arceneaux

Monday’s championship game of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was a rarity in that the two best teams in the country (Gonzaga and Baylor) survived the first five rounds of the tournament — a feat last achieved in 2005.

Thankfully for area high school baseball teams and fans, such showdowns are much more commonplace in May at the state tournament in Sulphur. Thanks to rule changes made over the past decade, local teams have become regular participants, particularly in Class 5A. The “3-5A West” contingent of Barbe, Sam Houston and Sulphur have combined to make 10 state tournament appearances since 2014, when the playoff format was changed. In the regional and quarterfinal rounds, single-elimination games were replaced with best 2-out-of-3 series.

The Bucs, Broncos and Tors have feasted in these match-ups — though getting to them has been a bit problematic. Sam Houston lost in the first round each of the first three seasons the new format was in place, Sulphur has lost in the first round twice and Barbe had the most shocking first round exit, losing to Haughton as the second seed in 2017. In five of the six first round losses, the local team lost at home.

Outside of the first round fiascoes, the local trio has been nearly unbeatable, advancing 21 times in 23 series. One of the two losses was self-inflicted, with Barbe beating Sulphur in 2014. The only other loss was Sulphur losing a series at West Monroe, the eventual state runner-up, in 2017.

Neither Barbe or Sam Houston has ever lost a 2-of-3 series. Barbe has won 10 straight series and is 20-1 in individual games. The 2015 team dropped Game 2 at Lafayette but bounced back to win Game 3 en route to a state championship. The Broncos have swept all six series they have played.

Things are shaping up well for both teams again this season, as most of the factors that have led to recent success are still in play. The two biggest, of course, are talented rosters and excellent coaching staffs. The two teams feature more than a dozen college prospects. Bucs head coach Glenn Cecchini has an unmatched list of accomplishments. Broncos head coach Chad Hebert has established himself among the state’s elite with a run of three straight trips to the state tournament.

The teams have relied upon deep pitching staffs to dominate the postseason, and both are set up nicely in that area again. Barbe boasts a quartet of strong starting options led by senior Mississippi State signee Jack Walker, who has lost only one game in his career and has returned from elbow surgery better than ever. He has fanned 27 batters in his last two starts, wins over Sam Houston and Sulphur, the latter of which drew more than a half-dozen professional scouts. UL-Lafayette signee Adam Guth, Blake Wren and hard-throwing freshman Landon Victorian gives Cecchini a wealth of options. Shortstop Gavin Guidry, a LSU commitment, doubles as the team’s closer and has been clocked in the low 90s on the mound.

Sam Houston’s staff boasts quality depth as well. Hebert can choose from among a group of good starters in Alex Norris, Andrew Glass and Dallas Rhodes. Like Guidry, Broncos shortshop Dylan Thompson, a Texas A&M commitment, can serve as a closer/relief pitcher. He picked up the win in relief in Sam Houston’s win over Barbe, holding the Bucs scoreless in four-plus innings of work. Dylan Thibodeaux is another reliever the Broncos can go to. His sidearm/submarine style isn’t used often and could cause problems for hitters seeing him for the first time.

Another help has been the strength and depth of District 3-5A, which helps its members get high power ratings and playoff seeds. That is holding true again, with district teams ranked in the top ten, with Barbe and Sam Houston holding the top two spots.

Sulphur has a young team this year but could be a tough match-up in the playoffs. The Tors have hung tough with Barbe in each of their three games so far this season, and will have more chances to pick up quality wins — and confidence — with four games against No. 2 Sam Houston and No. 10 Acadiana still on the regular season schedule.

Currently slotted at No. 19 in the power rankings, the Tors can earn a first round home game with a strong finish to the regular season. Kade McBride, Vinny Collins and Landon Arrant are quality arms that are capable of keeping top-level competition. The Tors could be trouble if they can reach the regional round of the playoffs, where their pitching depth would be an even bigger plus. The Tors are 4-2 in district play, with two wins against a 17-win Southside team.””Warren ArceneauxAmerican Press