KILGORE — Khalon Clayton walked out of the fieldhouse at Driller Park and realized something: This was it.
Under the summer sun, which had faded in the infield grass and turned the dirt rock hard after another year of baseball inside its famed walls, the Kilgore Bulldogs went to work at home one last time.
“We were just talking about how this was the last practice at Driller, where I grew up playing and coming to games,” Clayton said. “Schools is out, we’ve graduated and now there’s one more thing left to close this year out.
“It’s special and a good spot to be in.”
Monday was just one small part of the grand finale for the 2019 Bulldogs, who will head to the state baseball tournament for the first time since 1972 on Wednesday. After they set up the field, a light practice was all that was left before beginning the state’s final four.
“There’s nothing else I would want to be doing right now,” Gus Witt said. “This is what we’ve worked toward for a long time. We all knew that we could he here and this is exactly what we wanted to do.”
While talking about how they want to close things out, it goes back to where it began. ‘Day 1’ is hard to pinpoint for the Bulldogs, who take on Sweeny (30-9) in the Class 4A state semifinals at 1 p.m. Wednesday at UFCU Disch Falk Field in Austin.
It could’ve started way back on the youth baseball fields that surround Driller where Clayton said the bulldog mentality of Kilgore athletics is instilled.
“It’s something that were born into,” the senior said. “It comes from growing up here and watching your family play or all of the great players we’ve had play the game.
“You have no choice but to live off of that. You’ve got to be a bulldog and have that mentality if you want to play in Kilgore.”
Kilgore (32-7) has had to fight and bow their neck to get to this spot. District 16-4A was quickly credited as a part of the process. The Bulldogs won that title.
Then it came down to Region II and its gauntlet. That run featured a pair of win-or-go-home games against Texas baseball bluebloods in Pleasant Grove and Melissa.
“It’s always been that way — you’ve got to go to work every game,” Witt said. “Our district was tough, Bullard, Spring Hill, Gilmer. It’s always been that way and has always been a battle.
“The intensity and energy were high every pitch against Pleasant Grove and Melissa. It’s always been go, go, go and win, win, win. That’s the mentality it takes.”
It could’ve started in 2017 during a run to the regional quarterfinals for the first time since 2005. It could’ve started in 2018 when the Bulldogs were a series win away from where they are now.
“When we walked off that field in Corsicana last year, I told them great job of getting here but to remember what it took to do so and to remember that feeling,” second-year Kilgore coach Eugene Lafitte said. “I told them to allow that to drive them moving forward throughout the offseason and into this season.
“Day 1 that led to this final practice here started that very next day.”
On the field, it could start at any moment. Witt, who leads the Bulldogs with a .486 clip at the plate, said it’s a 1-through-9 mentality at the plate.
“You think of the guys at the top, 1-through-4 as the top hitters and most teams are like that but not us,” Witt said. “We’ve made teams work to get everyone out and it hasn’t been easy. That’s been big for us.”
Added Lafitte: “You preach it throughout the year that it’s not going to be one person every time. We’ve seen it in the playoffs where anyone in the lineup have come up clutch in big moments. It hasn’t been one person or just a few of them. They’ve all done their job and delivered when the stakes are high.”
It’s the same for the mound on the Bulldogs, who are led by junior Texas Tech commit Chase Hampton, who boasts a 12-2 record with a 1.29 ERA with 154 strikeouts in 81 innings pitched. Witt has eight wins on the mound and junior Brayden Johnson has been in the mix as both a starter and reliever.
“I’m not a pitcher, I don’t throw 90 but when I get called in, I go the mound, throw strikes and let my defense work behind me,” Witt said. “We’ve got Chase that can blow it by them and he’s been doing that. Brayden has been big no matter when he’s out there, just like some of the younger guys as well.”
It makes for a well-rounded, team approach for the Bulldogs, who head to state for the fourth time in school history.
“My mentality has been to just play the game and go hard every pitch and as long as I do that for my team, that’s all that matters to me,” Witt said. “It’s about doing whatever I can for the team. That’s the way it’s rolling right now and that’s the mentality we all have right now.”
No matter where it started, birth, youth ball, the past four years, Kilgore is ready for the challenge that awaits to finish it.
“It’s a brotherhood, we’ve stayed together as a team and never really stressed because we know we have one another’s back,” Clayton said. “We know we have a job to get done and we’ve been working for this for a long time.
“We knew we had the potential to do this and we’ve always believed that. That’s one thing about is that belief that we can do anything that we put our minds toward.
The second 4A semifinal pits Argyle (38-1-1) against La Vernia (28-11) at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. The 4A final is set for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.