MELISSA — Getting the start with a chance to send the Cardinals to the fifth round of the playoffs, Landon Wilson had a mixed feeling of emotions.
The one that stood out above all others was thankfulness.
"Going eight or nine months without throwing a ball, it’s a great feeling," Wilson said. "All year I’ve been praying my arm doesn’t give out."
Last year the Melissa senior injured his left arm before the playoffs started. He was unable to pitch, although he could hit and play the field, as the Cardinals were eliminated in the region quarterfinals for the second straight season.
Now Wilson will look to help pitch his team to the state tournament for the first time as Melissa (29-8) faces Texarkana Pleasant Grove (25-12) in the Class 3A Region II final series at Northeast Texas College in Mount Pleasant.
"Every year I think we’re going to be good," Wilson said. "But late in district our underclassmen really stepped up. We came together as a team. After this past month or so, we’re really good."
Game 1 is at 7 p.m. on Thursday with Game 2 at 7 p.m. on Friday. A third game, if necessary, is at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The winner will advance to the state tournament at UFCU-Disch Falk Field in Austin next Wednesday.
"We’ve gotten hot at the right time," Melissa head coach Joe Williams said. "If you don’t have pitching in the playoffs, you’re not going to go far."
Wilson is 10-0 with an earned run average under two and he is averaging more than a strikeout per inning. As a junior he was 6-1 with a 1.35 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 31 innings. A four-year contributor, Wilson is 28-5 in his high school career and that’s why he tried to tough it out last spring.
"I pitched two games and it didn’t feel right," Wilson said. "I didn’t know I was tearing it more and more. I was just trying to play through the pain."
Even after surgery to repair a torn labrum and bicep, there was a chance his senior season might have been over before it started. His initial return was somewhere around the start of the playoffs.
"I was two-and-a-half months ahead of schedule," Wilson said. "I’ve had ups and downs. Sometimes my velocity’s there. Sometimes it’s not."
When he was allowed to come back his pitch count was at 30 and increased by 10 each week. His playoff high has been 118 pitches.
"It’s a testament to the work he put into his rehab. You never know about shoulder surgeries," Williams said. "He’s been our ace since his freshman year."
Melissa, which had never made it past the third round, finds itself two weeks past their previous best effort. And Wilson has played a part in the success.
He opened the playoffs as the Game 1 starter against Sanger and he gave up just one hit and struck out 10 in the 3-1 victory.
Wilson then battled through five and two-thirds of an inning to get the win in Game 2 of a 12-10 victory against Argyle to keep Melissa’s season alive in the region quarterfinals.
"I don’t care when I pitch. My job is to throw strikes, get ground balls, win," Wilson said. "When you get called on, you have to perform."
Melissa advanced to the region final with a series sweep of Longview Spring Hill. After opening with a 7-5 win, the Cardinals held on for a 12-8 victory to close things out. Wilson earned the victory in the latter game, Cory Regan and Camden Duzenack had two-run doubles and Chris Smith and Grant Meeks each scored two runs.
Wilson picked up the save in Game 1 with a game-ending pickoff at second with the tying run on base. Meeks had a two-run double and C.J. Tyler and Smith added sac flies.
"I’m not saying we played great baseball last series but we played well enough to win," Williams said. "I knew we had the more talented team against Spring Hill and I was worried about overlooking them to either Princeton or Pleasant Grove."
Pleasant Grove, the District 13-3A champion, is back to defend its Region II title. The Hawks have been the premiere program in the region for the past six seasons, compiling a 44-3 record in Region II playoff contests in that span.
"You kinda stop thinking about state because we’ve got a great challenge," Williams said. "Everything up to this point has prepared us for this."
Pleasant Grove has reached the state tournament for the previous five years, including Class 3A championships in 2010 and last season and a runner-up finish in 2008. No 3A program has made it to state more than four years in a row.
"Their five-year run has been one of the best in the history of Texas high school baseball," Williams said. "Pleasant Grove has been the giant of 3A."
After winning the championship over West last spring and graduating half of the roster at the state tournament, Pleasant Grove is making another deep run.
Last weekend the Hawks survived a series against Princeton, which tied Melissa for the District 12-3A title. Pleasant Grove won the opener, 9-3, before a 2-1 loss was followed by a 5-0 victory.
Jarod Bayless returned from injury and threw a three-hit shutout to lift the Hawks past Princeton.
Pleasant Grove swept series against Bullard and Athens to open the playoffs.