A year ago, Lambert’s baseball team played in a mid-season regional tournament that propelled the young program into the national spotlight and toward its first state championship.
On Wednesday, the Longhorns begin a national tournament with a firm place among the top programs in the country.
Lambert gets started at the National High School Invitational (NHSI) at the USA Baseball complex in Cary, N.C., as part of an elite 16-team field that features defending state champions from five states.
Each team gets four games guaranteed over the four-day event, but the championship bracket is single-elimination. First up for the Longhorns: San Clemente (Calif.), the No. 6-ranked team in the latest MaxPreps Xcellent 25 Writers’ Poll, at 3:45 p.m., tomorrow in a game that will be streamed live on MLB.com.
“We’re definitely excited about the opportunity to play,” Lambert interim head coach Drew Ferrer said. “Anytime you can take a trip, obviously it’s a chance for the team to continue to gel and find out some things about our baseball team. We’re going to face some great competition.”
Lambert believed the confidence it took last season to go 36-2 and win the Class AAAAAA championship came out of winning the USA Baseball Classic in early April. The Longhorns faced state championship contenders from Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee and outscored them 27-8 over four games. When USA Today updated its Super 25 national rankings that week, Lambert rose to No. 1. Suddenly, a national championship seemed possible.
The NHSI won’t offer Lambert the same trajectory-changing opportunity. The Longhorns entered this season ranked No. 1 in every significant national poll, though they didn’t stay there for long after losses to Kennesaw Mountain (3-0) and North Forsyth (2-1).
Still, the Longhorns have been undeterred. They were defeated by elite pitchers on good teams while under enormous pressure to live up to their national prominence.
“Those two games we lost, we faced pitchers and teams that were very good and did a great job against us,” Ferrer said.
Lambert appears back in form heading into the NHSI. Since the loss to North, the Longhorns are 4-0 and averaging 12 runs a game.
“Coming out of those losses, I think the kids had a great week of preparation and had a good week of swinging the bats and putting some runs on the board,” Ferrer said.
More than anything, Ferrer said Lambert’s eager to find out more about itself at the NHSI. For example, the Longhorns are still searching for someone to be a reliable late-inning pinch hitter of the sort that senior Will Dunavant was during the state playoffs last season. The role has been vacant since Dunavant became the team's full-time designated hitter this season.
Ultimately, the Longhorns hope to come out of the NHSI the same way they did the USA Baseball Classic a year ago – ready for a championship run.
“There are still things about our team that we’re trying to figure out,” Ferrer said. “I think going into a tournament playing the kind of teams we’re going to play is great preparation for playing the teams in our region and state.”