"HP has an extra gear in the clutch: Baseball team started 1-4 in district play and didn't panic," Keith Whitmire hwhitmire@dallasnews.com, The Dallas Morning News http://www.dallasnews.com/, 02:03 AM CDT on Wednesday, May 23, 2007. http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/spt/highschools/topstories/stories/052307dnspohpbase.326c22f.html

When Highland Park lost the first game of last week's playoff series against Nacogdoches, there was no sense of panic. In fact, being in a do-or-die situation probably felt comfortable.

Highland Park won the next two games to capture the best-of-3 series. To the players, it was no different than starting district play 1-4 and knowing their next loss could keep them out of the playoffs.

"I believe we thrive on the situations when we have our backs against the wall," senior second baseman Nick Flabiano said. "It seems like we've been in that situation so much that now when we come into a Game 3 of a series, we feel like it's just another game."

Highland Park has thrived in tournament situations this season, including the playoffs. Highland Park went 4-2 in a Round Rock tournament at the beginning of the season, took third in the Fort Worth Southwest tournament and won its own tournament.

Highland Park is 6-1 in the playoffs entering this week's Class 4A Region II semifinal series with Brownwood, which starts Thursday in Weatherford.

"I think when there's a sense of urgency, they like that," coach Sam Roberson said. "They rise to the occasion."

Third baseman Jonathan Perlman had several key hits in Games 2 and 3 last week. Roberson said outfielders Dutch Crews and Will Russell have also been hitting the ball well in the postseason.

The pitching staff has also come through in clutch situations. Evan Blakeley, who has signed with UT-Pan American, is 7-1. Wyatt Holliday is 6-2 and Bradley Stephenson is 3-1.

"Our backs have been against the wall since the beginning of district," Russell, a senior, said. "We're calm under pressure, and we've been in situations other teams haven't been in."

Highland Park went deep into the playoffs last year but did it with a different cast and chemistry.

Last season, Highland Park rode the arm of Clayton Kershaw to the regional final. Kershaw went 13-0 and is now pitching in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

"Last year's team was more of a power team," Flabiano said. "We had Kershaw and a few other guys that could hit the ball out of the park at any time. This team is more a scrappy team that likes to manufacture runs. It puts a lot of pressure on the other team."

Roberson took over as coach this season after spending nine years as an assistant. Because he teaches at Highland Park's middle school, he's known many of his players longer than most high school coaches.

Roberson said he didn't change his approach after the slow start to the District 10-4A season. He preached perseverance and talked constantly about learning life lessons through adversity.

"I told our kids that 1-4 start has been a blessing in disguise," Roberson said. "Every game for two months has been do-or-die for us."

Now, Highland Park's players say that they have an edge when postseason pressure heats up. That's why there wasn't any panic after losing Game 1 last week.

"It was more of an excited urgency than a nervous urgency," senior outfielder/DH Ryan O'Dwyer said. "We know stuff doesn't always go your way, and it's the way you react to it that defines your team. That's the way we define ours, the way we react under pressure."

TOURNAMENT TESTED

Highland Park's baseball team has performed well under tournament conditions, including this year's playoffs.
Event W-L
Round Rock West. 4-2
FW Southwest 5-1, 3rd place
Highland Park 5-1, 1st place
UIL state playoffs 6-1, reg. semis

HIGHLAND PARK (31-9) VS. BROWNWOOD (20-11)