By BRAD KEITH
Nathan Lewis thought his collegiate baseball career was over.
Tarleton State's senior right-handed pitcher who sports an 8-2 record this season departed for Florida immediately following the conclusion of the spring semester last week.
Shortstop Travis Hayes knew he still had a year remaining in his Texan career, but thought his impressive junior season - in which he sports a team-leading .403 batting average - was done. Hayes left Stephenville to camp in the mountains of Colorado as soon as his class work was complete.
By Tuesday, however, both had completed a rushed return trip to the Tarleton campus.
As soon as Tarleton head coach Bryan Conger learned his team had been invited to compete in the South Central Region phase of the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship, he knew he had a large obstacle ahead of him - finding his baseball team.
"We had fallen out of the (top six) in the regional poll, finals were done and the kids had gone home. We thought the season was over," said Conger. "Then Sunday night, we started making phone calls and rounding everyone up."
The Texans were a healthy No. 4 in the regional rankings entering the Lone Star Conference Championship, but consecutive losses in the opening two rounds of the tournament dropped them to No. 7 in last week's poll. The top six advance to the playoffs.
With no games remaining, it looked as if the season was indeed over.
But when the NCAA Championship selections were announced Sunday night, there was Tarleton, not only in the bracket, but as the No. 5 seed, one spot ahead of LSC regular-season champ Incarnate Word.
"I'm glad to see we're being rewarded for three months of excellent baseball instead of being punished for one bad weekend," said Conger.
Several players were still in Stephenville, including standout third-baseman Junnior Dishmey, who would have been the hardest to get back in time if he had departed for home in the Dominican Republic.
"A lot of the guys were still around, and by Monday we had 20 of our 24 roster players back here. The rest of them are on their way back today," Conger said Tuesday.
Some, however, were long gone.
"(Hayes') dad had to basically send a search party out (in the mountains) after him," Conger said. "Nathan's flying back in from Florida. It's been crazy."
Tarleton enters the regional with an overall record of 35-13. Before dropping games to Cameron - who just missed the regional by finishing seventh in the final poll - and Incarnate Word in the LSC Championship, the Texans posted the best regular-season win percentage (35-11 record for a .761 percentage) in school history.
Conger says it's critical that his team from the regular season, not the one from the LSC Championship, show up in San Antonio, where the regional tournament is being hosted by top-seeded St. Mary's.
"All year we were this relaxed, confident team that focused on winning games one pitch at a time," said the third-year head coach. "Then we got to the LSC tournament, one of our big goals was right there in front of us and we tightened up. That's not us," he continued. "We have to get back to being that relaxed team that played a great three months of baseball in the regular season."
Conger said part of that is a learning process.
"Winning, and then winning in the postseason, is a process you learn," Conger said. "I think we learned some things at the LSC Tournament, and I hope we benefit from that this week."
The Texans are preparing to open the double-elimination event against second-seeded Central Missouri at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, and Conger is hoping the team's first practice of the week was an indication of good things to come.
"We're a team with a second chance," he said. "We thought our season was over, and then when we found out we made it, it's like we came back relaxed and refocused. Monday was our best practice of the year."
Even without four players including their No. 1 pitcher and starting shortstop.
They're all back now, preparing for the school's first playoff trip in 13 years.
"We had all said our goodbyes to the seniors already," Conger said. "There was a lot of emotion, a lot of shock and disbelief when we called the guys and told them the news. There were some tears. Some of these seniors who thought their careers were over are looking at this as their second chance. It's going to be fun to see those guys compete this week."