WACO – Dillon Morales doesn’t deny it. Neither does Red Oak coach Heath Autrey. When the ball came Morales’ way in the seventh inning, everyone who had been in the playoff series couldn’t help but flash back to last season.

This time around, Morales left the field with high fives instead of hat in hand.

The senior’s defense and timely offense helped key the Hawks to a 3-2 win over country rival Midlothian in a Waco ISD Tournament game on Friday and helped him erase months’ worth of a bad taste in his mouth.

“It felt good to bounce back from that considering what happened last year. It’s like a reverse, a complete 360,” Morales said with a smile.

Last year, while playing at third in the 10th inning of game three of the playoffs, Morales took a ball off the chest with a runner on third, allowing just enough of a window for the winning run to score. It was a moment he had to live with all offseason.

Friday might not have been the same situation but it certainly helped him find a little solace. Clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning, Morales made the move from centerfield to third as the defense had to be shifted with a pitching change. After recording the first two outs of the inning, Midlothian shortstop Alec Humphreys sent a ball down the third base line to Morales who calmly gloved it and tossed across the diamond for the out.

“I can’t say that everybody wasn’t thinking about it but hopefully those bricks are gone and he’s released them,” Red Oak coach Heath Autrey said. “I don’t know if it is redemption or not but to see D-Mo kind of battle those demons and release those bricks and just let those thoughts go.”

That was far from the only thing Morales did to make an impact in the game. The inning before, he keyed a double-play that ended the inning. In centerfield, he had two putouts including a catch with the bases loaded to end the fifth inning. Morales’ bat was also the deciding run as he hit an RBI single to score Garret Thomas for a 3-1 lead in the fifth.

Much like the playoff series last season, pitching was the biggest storyline in the Panthers and Hawks’ lone meeting this season. Midlothian starter Kyler Brown surrendered a first inning run before settling to hold Red Oak scoreless until the fourth. Reliever Blaine Blackburn did not allow a hit while striking out two in two innings of work for Midlothian (0-1-1). It was an effort that had coach Ray Hydes excited.

“Kyler threw the ball well, he gave up some hits and missed his spots in certain situations but I’m real proud of what Kyler did,” Hydes said. “I thought Blackburn came in and threw the ball extremely well. That’s two positive things we’ve got to build on.”

Red Oak’s Robert Elles gave up a solo home run to Panther shortstop Alec Humphreys on the second pitch of the game that cleared an estimated 400 feet. After that, Elles allowed just four more hits and one run. He worked out of a bases loaded jam in the fifth by getting a strikeout and inducing that fly out to Morales.

Autrey called Elles a “notoriously slow starter” but said he never doubted his pitcher would battle back from the early hiccup. He wasn’t disappointed.

“All fall we’ve been talking about mental stuff and trying to just stay focused no matter what’s going on, doing damage control on the mound. I just tried to keep my head in there,” Elles said.

Drew Tyra struck out one in a three-batter stint before Thomas moved to the mound for the final five outs.

Both teams took similar lessons away from the game – the need for more consistent offense, capitalizing on mistakes and shoring up communication, just to name a few. Both teams were set to play two more games on Saturday to conclude tournament play with learning and solving as the main goals.

“We’re going to right the ship, get straightened out and get it going. I’m not happy with our performance in some situational stuff we’re not doing defensively that we’ve got to get worked out,” Hydes said. “We’ve got to get that karma together, get better and we’re going to do that.”

In game two Rockwall pitcher Thomas Anderson threw a perfect game to top Red Oak 10-0. Red Oak (1-2) had one ball leave the infield.