Mineral Wells Index
By CLINT FOSTER
The dust has settled from the Kennedale games and it's time for the Rams and Lady Rams of Mineral Wells to jump back into the thick of their District 6-3A schedule. Road contests against the Castleberry Lions and Lady Lions loom, with first pitches at 7:30 p.m., tonight in Fort Worth.
The Castleberry games will mark the first time in a week that both the Rams and Lady Rams will take the diamond. Both teams had to take a break and forgo their usual Tuesday game dates because of STAAR testing.
But coaches said the break was timely and allowed their teams to get some much-needed rest and extra time to prepare for the final half of the district slate.
For the Rams (13-8, 4-0), their 5-4 victory over Kennedale was nothing short of colossal.
Not only did they conquer a significant mountain in beating the Wildcats for the first time in over a decade, but the road win also put the Rams alone in first place in the District 6-3A race with six games left in the regular season.
To say the win was energizing would be a gross understatement. Yet, for that reason, head coach Bret Barrick said the break could not have come at a better time.
"We were still pretty jacked on Tuesday from the Kennedale win," he said. "This break has allowed us to refocus, get off of the high from Kennedale and given us the opportunity to focus more on Castleberry.
"I think its been good for us. We'd been on a pretty long haul there and we've had good practices so far this week. We'll just have to see if things keep going."
Besides the mental impact of the break, Barrick said there have also been many tangible effects on his team that can help them finish the season strong.
For one, the break has given the Rams the opportunity to rest all of their arms in a very talented and deep pitching rotation. As a result, Barrick said the coaching staff has been able to retool the order of the rotation so that no district opponent will see the same Ram on the mound twice.
With his entire rotation available for the Rams' first matchup with Castleberry this season, Barrick was not ready to publicly name a starter for tonight's game, opting instead to keep his cards close to his chest.
Barrick said the other area of focus during the break has been the offense, particularly the top of the order, which has struggled in recent games.
Since district play began, the top three of the Rams’ order – changes in the three hole, withstanding – have been a combined 8-for-36 from the plate (.222) with only two hits in the past two games.
But Barrick said the break has allowed these team leaders time to refocus.
"The offense has seemed to struggle, particularly the top of the lineup," he said. "We've gotten guys back in the cages and back to the fundamentals and it's given us an opportunity to work on offensive strategies.
"(The players at the top of the order) are the guys that have produced for us in the past. I think they might have been trying to do too much at the plate. Now they've had time to refocus, relax and learn not to press so much. We've looked pretty good."
Turning their attention to Castleberry, Barrick has stressed the importance of the Rams playing their best against a Lions team that has quietly crept into a tie with Kennedale for second in District 6-3A at 3-1 and has district championship ambitions of their own.
"They're playing for first place, too," Barrick said. "What makes them dangerous is they keep getting better until the end of the season. Defensively, they're going to be sound. They put the ball in play and they never give up.
"They play from the first pitch to the last pitch. We've got to match that intensity."
The Mineral Wells coaching staff has spent time scouting Castleberry, but the focus of the past week in practice has been geared less toward a specific game plan and primarily on overall team improvement. Barrick said his team knows their identity and they are capable of achieving their goals this season.
"We've got spray charts on Castlberry and we know their strengths and weaknesses, but, more importantly, we know what our strengths and weaknesses are," he said. "I'm not as concerned about Castleberry as I am about us. If we play our game the best we can and take care of business, we should be fine."
Lady Rams Softball
Like their male counterparts, head coach David Tarver said the week-long break has been overwhelmingly positive for the Mineral Wells Lady Rams.
Tarver said his girls got Monday completely off before a hitting-only practice on Tuesday and regular practices Wednesday and Thursday, all of which went well.
"They got to sleep in three days in a row," Tarver said of the Lady Rams. "Everything's still plugging along, nice and tight."
After a disappointing 8-3 loss to Kennedale in their bout for first place, the Lady Rams (20-6, 4-1) have used the break to rest and reload for their game with a Castleberry squad that they dismantled in a 16-2 victory to open their District 6-3A slate at Kessler Field, March 11.
Tarver said the focus has remained consistent: to take care of each game and not take any opponent lightly. He said a team like Castleberry with their backs against the wall in district can easily become a trap game for the Lady Rams if they allow it to.
"Castleberry is fighting for their playoff lives," he said. "One slip-up can knock them out of the playoffs. They're going to try and sneak out a win anywhere they can.
"They know we're the better team, but when you let a team like that hang around, it gives them confidence. Those are the teams that become dangerous. When we go out and handle business, it makes things much better.
"We've just got to go out, play hard and stay focused and play like we are the better team."
Sticking to their original rotation, Tarver said junior Allie Stephens will start the game at pitcher for the Lady Rams. In her previous start against the Lady Lions this season, Stephens allowed four hits through five innings of work and struck out eight to get credit for the win.
As for the rest of the team – who batted a combined .480 in their first game against the Lady Lions –Tarver said the motto has been "attention to detail."
"Wednesday's practice was a big mental practice," he said. "We need to understand the little things we can do. The best way I can describe it is field savvy.
"We work on situations all the time, but the deeper it goes and as the body starts becoming more tired, you try to sharpen your mental focus more and more. It's about gaining those little advantages and not only being the better team, but looking like it. Look and play like you know what's going on."
Once the Castleberry game is behind them, the Rams and Lady Rams will have no more breaks until the end of the regular season before the playoffs begin. The hope for both teams is that a win in Fort Worth will continue to build their case for a district championship and a favorable playoff seed to help them achieve their ultimate goals.