It was a low line drive, heavy on topspin and sinking fast, an apparent nightmare for what had been a spectacularly successful baseball season at Magnolia West High School. In that instant, as the ball screamed off the bat, the Mustangs seemed on the verge of losing a state championship.

Down the right field line, the school’s principal, so nervous that he could glance at the field only every now and then, prepared to lock eyes with defeat. “ ‘If the ball drops in, we’re going to lose state,’ ” Jason Morley recalled thinking, “and it looked like it was going to drop in.”

Surely one of the best stories in Texas high school sports wouldn’t end this way. Perhaps that final moment of suspense made Magnolia West’s eventual 3–2 victory over Argyle High School last month in Round Rock even sweeter.

Magnolia West, from the fast-growing Houston suburbs, had gotten to the final inning of the final game of the Texas class 5A baseball season by doing things differently. For instance, the Mustangs carried only thirteen players on their varsity roster, instead of the usual two dozen or so. This was a tactic, not a necessity. “I’d heard the players didn’t get along the previous year,” first-year coach Travis Earles told me. “I’d heard the parents didn’t like one another. I wanted a smaller group because it would force everyone to work together and eventually have one another’s backs. We could do it because our eleven best position players were also our eleven best arms.”

Earles had no outfield group, no infield group. When the team took ground balls, everyone took them. This made it easy for teammates to fill in for one another’s positions, in case of an emergency or injury or absence. And at a time when high school sports have become increasingly specialized, the Magnolia Independent School District has encouraged its students to participate in multiple sports. “Our philosophy is if there’s a school-related conflict, it’s our responsibility to figure out a way to make it work,” Morley, the principal, said. “If I’ve got a girl who wants to do softball and cheerleading, we have to figure out a way to do it. We’re not going to limit kids at that age.”

Magnolia West’s top pitcher, James Ellwanger, was also a starter on the basketball team and a varsity tennis player last school year. First baseman Wade Nobles was one of several athletes who started on both the football and baseball teams. “Each sport helps the other sports in different ways,” Ellwanger said. “On the athletic side of things, there’s the footwork, the conditioning. But you also build a different camaraderie because it’s all different atmospheres.”

Earles remembered coaching against Magnolia West in previous seasons, before he took over the Mustangs baseball program. “Some of the kids looked like they’d just come from football practice,” he said. “Turns out, some of them had.” The coach said he’s convinced that multiple-sport athletes are part of what brought this season a championship. “I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face,” Earles said. “Kids’ arms need a break. Throwing a baseball is one of the most unnatural things you’ll ever do. Parents worry their kids will fall behind if they don’t play year-round because that’s what has been drilled into them in some of these expensive youth programs. I don’t believe that.

“It’s also going to help you in life,” Earles continued. “Look, football is a different sport than baseball; basketball is a different sport than baseball. The type of friends and the type of people that play those sports are different. So it’s healthy to be around all types of people. When you go out in the real world, you’re going to be dealing with a wide range of people. The better you truly understand how to talk to that person, the better off you’re going to be. I’m convinced it has way more advantages than disadvantages.”

Earles also loved the versatility within his baseball team, with six pitchers also playing positions. His second-best pitcher, Caylon Dygert, started at catcher on the days he wasn’t on the mound. When I asked Dygert how he was able to alternate between baseball’s two most demanding positions, he said: “I worked my butt off.”

Earles had his own unique perspective, having played at Texas A&M–Kingsville before spending six years in the oil and gas business that left him feeling unfulfilled. Eventually he opened up to his future wife, Angelina, about his need for a change. “I’ve just got to do something I enjoy,” he remembered telling her, “even if the pay isn’t going to be great.”

Earles found a job at Summer Creek High School, in Houston, working for half the salary he was making in the energy sector. At Summer Creek, he taught business classes and worked gigs that included head coach of the freshman football team and unpaid assistant coach with the baseball team. Some of his most valuable experience came from learning to organize and motivate 120 freshman football players. “The longer I do this, the less I think it has to do with the actual x‘s and o‘s of the sport, especially at the high school level,” he said. “It’s more about building relationships with kids, showing them you care. I wanted to make sure that whatever sport I was in, it was a positive experience for them.”

Baseball was his first love, but he’d been passed over for enough head coaching jobs that he’d grown cynical about his chances of landing one of them. Still, when he learned of the opening at Magnolia West, he jumped at it. He arrived at the interview with a tabbed binder detailing his plan for practices, fundamentals, and motivational tactics. He was the fourth or fifth candidate Magnolia ISD athletic director J. D. Berna and Magnolia West administrators interviewed. Twenty-four hours after the meeting, the district offered the job to Earles.

“I could tell he was hungry,” Berna said, “and I’ve never been afraid to hire somebody. At the end of the day, he was the right fit and the right person for those kids. What’s the plan? What’s the vision? How’re you going to develop our kids? What are the expectations, the standards? He brought in his little slogan—Dirt Boys. DIRT is an acronym for disciplined, invested, responsive, and team over me.”

Earles immediately established some nonnegotiable guidelines with his players, some of which were based on issues that had plagued the previous year’s team. Among the no-no’s: taunting opponents, speaking to umpires, and throwing dugout tantrums. Once, when a player threw his helmet after a poor at bat, he was benched for the remainder of an important district contest. “That’s part of the job,” Earles said. “If I let you get away with it, I’m not doing you a favor.”

He can look back and see defining moments. There was a day when even his best players got frustrated after he cranked up the velocity on the pitching machine during batting practice. Earles stopped the session. “No problem,” he announced. “When we’re playing Lake Creek, and their pitcher is throwing too hard, I’ll just call time-out and ask him to slow it down.”

Nobles, the first baseman, said: “[Earles] would make comments like that all the time to lighten the mood and relax us a bit. He was also letting us know he trusted us to figure it out, which we eventually did.” Nobles was a tight end on the football team and unsure whether he wanted to play baseball again. “My sophomore and junior years, I kind of fell out of love with the game,” he said. “He asked me to give him a chance. It was also one more year with guys I’d been playing with my whole life. The thing is, Coach understands you’re going to mess up at times. I’d just felt so much pressure the last two years, and he took that pressure off.”

Earles emphasized putting his players in situations where they could have fun, which is an ingredient that occasionally gets lost in overheated high school competitions. “Baseball is supposed to be fun, man,” he said. “We needed to play more. The day before our games, we’d play a loose squad game, and just let them play ball. They’re giving each other crap, and it’s like recess. It was pretty cool to see.”

Every player I spoke with mentioned those games. “Those are things that brought us together,” Dygert said, “and it was one of the best parts of the season.” So were the four- and five-hour Saturday practices. “He’d tell us the other team wasn’t practicing on Saturday, and that’s why y’all are more prepared than them,” Nobles said. “And it ultimately paid off.”

Magnolia West rolled into the championship game having won 30 of 34 games. It had been unranked in preseason lists of the state’s top teams. “We weren’t even mentioned in that ‘also receiving votes’ category,” Earles said. “I might have mentioned that to our players.”

He might have also mentioned he’d heard that a guy scouting for Lake Belton High School had told someone associated with Magnolia West, “You guys have one good pitcher [Ellwanger] and a bunch of average players.” That coach could not have known those words would be used against him when the two schools met in a best-of-three playoff series weeks later. Earles called a team meeting and screamed: “They think we have one good player and a bunch of average guys. They don’t even know where Magnolia is.”

“I’ll admit I laid it on thick,” he said, looking back on that series. From that point on, the players would put their hands together before a game and scream: “One, two, three, average!” Their championship rings will have “#average” engraved on them.

Magnolia West swept Lake Belton on the way to the championship tournament and held a 3–0 lead over Argyle entering the seventh and final inning of the season. That’s when the wheels almost came off—a 3–2 game, and Argyle had the tying and winning runs in scoring position. When that two-out line drive came off the bat, it looked like a walk-off base hit in the making.  

At the crack of the bat, Magnolia West center fielder Jackson Blank sprinted toward the infield on his way to the biggest defensive play of his life. “I was running as hard as I could,” he said. “And then the wind also helped push it right to me a little bit. Honestly, I don’t know. There was something in the moment that helped me get the perfect break on it.”

Blank dove to reach the ball, and fans swear the outfielder was parallel to the ground when he cradled the ball in his glove. His dad, Matt Blank, had made it to the majors for a brief stint as a pitcher with the Montreal Expos, and he had been part of the team that brought a state championship to Arlington’s James Martin High School thirty years ago. He brought his championship medal to the final game to pose for photographs with his son, in hopes that Jackson would win his own medal.

Jackson Blank began summer school at Rice University a couple of days after the championship game and will pitch for the Owls next season. He knows that wherever his baseball career leads him from here, it might never equal the thrill of his final high school season. “It’s an unexplainable feeling,” he said. “It’s still setting in.”

The Texas high school baseball season stands out for how abruptly it ends. Magnolia West’s graduation ceremony was held two weeks before the final game, so the last out of the season was also the end of high school for the team’s seniors. After the title game, Earles gathered his players in center field and, touching on another of his season-long themes, said: “I think people know where Magnolia is now.”

Then, after the bus ride home, they splintered, some off to college, others to summer baseball or summer jobs. Blank to Rice, Ellwanger to Dallas Baptist University. Dygert is heading to UT-Arlington to continue playing, while Nobles will begin his pursuit of an engineering degree at Texas A&M this fall. They’ll be invited back for a ring ceremony and the unveiling of a granite monument commemorating the championship. But the wish to have had a little more time to savor their win together has lingered with all of them.

“None of us wanted it to end,” Ellwanger said. “That bus ride back and Coach giving his final speech and stuff like that, I’m gonna remember for the rest of my life.”

Todd Stephens, the Magnolia ISD superintendent and a former high school football coach, is determined not to let this baseball season fade from memory. “You get to that pinnacle as a team and have this bond and have done all this stuff together,” he said. “Then they’re moving on to the next chapter in their lives. We’ve got kids traveling all over the United States playing ball, going to showcases, going to college. This community has been hungry for our kids to have this kind of success. It’s the school district that is a uniting thing. I hope people remember this.”

Nobles, the reluctant participant, said: “I’d played with some of those guys almost my entire life, and then we’re on a bus ride home and are never going to do anything together like that again. It’s overwhelming thinking about it. It gives me chills.”