Two decades separated two uniquely similar Waxahachie Indian baseball teams.
In 1988, John Rodgers, Ricky Joe Redd, Joe Volentine, and company led the Tribe under the tutelage of a younger Bill Midkiff. They took the skipper to his first of two state tournament appearances, with the other coming in 1999.
The group began to forge their bond long before ever planting a metal spike in the dirt at Paul Richards Park. It culminated on the diamond during the 4A state tournament at Disch-Falk Field on the campus of the University of Texas.
Twenty years later, first-year Waxahachie head coach Tracy Wood took a group headed by Boomer Collins, Colton Cain and Drew Harrison to the 4A state title game in Round Rock.
Thanks to a comedy of errors that included lousy luck with the sun in ‘88 and winds strong enough to move small cars in ‘08 (and two worthy opponents), both teams ultimately fell in the state title game.
That is not where their stories or legacies ended. Though the 1965 Indians still hold the undisputed title as state champions and, technically, the best single season in program history, members of the ‘88 and ‘08 teams have at least have a leg to stand on in the “best-ever” conversation.
So, on the weekend of the 2018 state baseball championships, these pages are filled with their stories as written during each of their respective runs to Austin and Round Rock.
In the sake of disclosure, 2008 holds a special place in the heart and memory of this journalist. It is both an honor and privilege to share the stories of my former teammates and forever brothers.
The idea for this project first began on the eve of a wedding. Our catcher, Brad Davis, was set to wed his soulmate and decided to hold a get-together at the house of Russell Phillips, who won 12 games on the mound for the Indians in ‘88.
Eventually, the beverage-enhanced conversation turned to one subject: Which team was the better team? We did not reach a unanimous decision despite a rather spirited debate.
This week, I spoke with Phillips, Midkiff, and Wood. Not so much to find an answer to the unanswerable question — though Midkiff did provide one — but to discover the secret to each team’s success.
In short, each player on both teams cared about each other and the sanctity of the game.
“They are all just great guys, and I knew that they were going to be a success,” said Midkiff of the '88 team. “Yeah, they were all pretty good ball players, but most of those guys were also in the National Honor Society. I think it was 11 guys off of that team and two or three weren't even eligible yet because they weren't juniors or seniors. Greatness was stamped all over them. All I had to do was not screw it up.”
Phillips added, “That whole group back in ‘88, I'll tell ya, we were just having fun. We knew we were pretty good we had all played ball together for so long, and we were just having a good time and good things happen.”
Phillips also pointed to the fathers of Joe Volentine, David Woodward, and Steve Murphree for not only the successes of the ‘88 group but for his and others' continued passion for remaining involved with the program. Phillips now helps lead the Waxahachie RBI Club.
“They coached to us when we were in little league down at The Optimist, and those are the guys that I remember spending so much time at the ballpark and they were always supporting us, and as a group, we came together because of that. Those guys gave up their time to support us and did what they did to make sure that we had a good time playing ball. That is really what drives me and everything that I do for baseball and this program.”
The sentiment holds true for the ‘08 team, too.
Twelve of the 14 seniors from that team began their journey as Athletics, Yankees, and Tigers on the ballfields at The Optimist under the guidance of Dan Cox, Eloy Ortiz, and, well, all of the other 10 fathers.
Shortly after the group “graduated” to an early form of select baseball and, a few years before graduating from high school amid a run at the state championship, the core had long been discussed around town as a team destined to play in Round Rock.
It was not “if” they would play for a title, but when.
Though not much stock is ever put into non-varsity results, the senior class officially put itself on the radar of Indian supporters in 2005 as freshmen. They finished that year 21-0, outscoring the opposition 213-56. The pitching staff limited opponents to just 34 earned runs on 91 hits over those 21 games, while the bats combined to hit at a .346 clip.
It was not if, but when.
“Whew, that’s a loaded question,” said Wood on Friday from Dell Diamond in Round Rock as he thought about when it was the 2008 Indians showed they had what it took to make a run to the state tournament. “The reason I say it is a loaded question is that you could obviously see that there was talent there but there has to be more than talent, there has to be some cohesiveness.
"You have to go through part of the year before you can see that part of it. It ain't just watching a guy take bp or watching a guy throw 90. It is more than that. So to say when I knew it, I would say probably middle of the way through district. That is when I thought we were legitimate and had a chance to do something like that.”
He explained the group played with a unique maturity and knew how to play the game of baseball the right way. Of course, it did not hurt to have three future minor leaguers in Collins, Harrison, and Cain. “But we also had guys who played roles, too. It takes more than just talent.”
He added the team was full of players with high intelligence off the field, high baseball IQs, and even higher character.
Wood explained, “I knew we were talented after the first few weeks of the offseason. Shoot, Ray Charles could have seen that. We also never really had any bumps in the road. I remember a few times there were some bumps during the offseason when I had to get some guys to buy in on small-ball, but other than that we didn't have a lot. It was always pretty smooth.”
“And they didn’t have to buy in. It was a first-year coach, and they didn’t have to buy into the small ball deal,” Wood added. “But they did...if all of you guys didn’t buy in, it wouldn’t have happened. It just wouldn’t have happened.”
But it did happen. The ‘08 team, as well as the ‘88 group, bought into the tradition of Waxahachie Indian baseball. And did it to near perfection.
When asked which team was better, the 1988 Indians or the 2008 squad, Midkiff gave a hearty laugh, clearly in an attempt to buy a little time to find the most politically correct answer.
“I would say the guys in green were the best group,” he said.
That they were, coach. That they were. But it’s still worth the occasional debate.