By Mike Tenney
What will 2019 hold for sports teams and athletes in West University and Bellaire? That’s the question that we will unravel in Essentials Magazine every month, with both predictable outcomes and a few satisfying surprises.
In West U, the biggest surprises for youth athletes involve who they’ll play for and who their new teammates will be. All the teams in the West U Little League and the Southwest Football League are put together by drafts, meaning teams and players are assembled shortly before they actually start playing the games. So each season is a fresh beginning with a new group of potential lifelong friends on the field of competition.
Every new year also brings new opportunity, a chance for growth, and the possibility of being on a team that does something special, with an opportunity to contribute to that success.
And every year, there are questions. Here are the top ones for 2019 in West U:
1. Will West University win a District 16 Majors 12 Little League championship?
We don’t know if it’s a long drought or if a West University representative has ever won the District 16 championship (because we’ve yet to find anyone in the community who is totally sure), but one dream on the table for one of the largest Little League associations in the country is to notch that title soon — then make a run all the way to Williamsport, Pa.
The Senior 15-16s have been major players for a decade now, with three World Series Championships since 2009. The intermediates have qualified for the national World Series three times, and the Juniors 14s are on the verge of kicking in the door in their age division after they qualified for the Southwest Regional last year for the first time in the program’s history.
But the West U 12-year-olds have been stymied in their recent attempts to get to the Sectional 3 tournament, having reached the District 16 finals three times in the last eight years. The new year presents a fresh opportunity to achieve that goal, and the league would love to see 2019 be the year one of their bloodline make that magical run to Williamsport with all the attending glory.
2. Will the Texas East LL tournament return to South Campus?
After a seemingly successful two-year run at the South Campus, hosting all of the Texas East Little League sectional champions, the West U Little League was surprised last year when Texas East officials sent the competition back to Tyler where it had been held for 14 consecutive years prior to 2016.
Now the question is — do West U officials try and bring it back to South Campus or not? In talking with new president Michael Dellinger and past president Chick Chickering, trying to get the tournament back locally isn’t off the table but also isn’t a major, major priority. The Texas East Little League hierarchy seems very content with the job West U does in putting on the state Juniors tournament every year, as South Campus will be their home for the fifth consecutive year this July, but at this juncture it doesn’t appear likely Texas East State Tournament will be back in West U until at least 2020.
3. Will Clint Sauls return as the WULL Seniors manager?
This is a question that pops up every year about this time as people began to wonder if coach Sauls, who has won two World Championships in five appearances at the Senior World Series while directing the 15-16 senior team, will be returning this summer to try and win a third crown.
He replaced Trey Cornelius after the 2011 summer and has more than maintained the level of excellence that Cornelius started when the West U 16s won it all for the first time ever in 2009.
4. Which athletes from the 77005 could find the national spotlight shining on them?
Here are two we think are “most likely to” this year. In 2017, Carson Maxwell was named a National Junior College All-American baseball player at Galveston Junior College, and last year, former Lamar High School pitcher John Doxakis was a second-team Big 12 all-conference selection as a sophomore at Texas A&M University. Maxwell is now a senior at McNeese State University in Lake Charles Louisiana and looking to end his college career on a bang, while Doxakis is a junior left-hander on whom the Aggies will be relying heavily this spring — and hopefully into the summer.
McNeese State is expected to be a contender in the Southland Conference this spring, with Maxwell playing a huge role in their chances as an outfielder. Doxakis was valuable as both a starter and reliever for the Yankees’ pitching staff, and he could be doing both again this year. Both are among a number of talented former West University ball players in the college ranks who have a chance to be noticed by coaches and scouts.
And in Bellaire…
The city has its share of tremendous athletes from youth sports to the professionals, and success stories abound. Current Astros, Texans and several NBA players live in this town and help promote healthy competition. The city also has an excellent Parks and Recreation program, headed by Buster Adams, which is designed to give youngsters and adults alike the opportunity to play their games competitively in a controlled .
With a lively city rec center gym, adult softball at Feld Park, soccer fields, and three sets of tennis courts, anyone in their prime — or even well past it — has the opportunity to participate in a sport they love somewhere around town.
When it comes to youth and competition, though, here’s what we’ll be watching in 2019:
1. Is the Bellaire HS baseball team a state contender?
Slowly but surely the Cardinals are working to get back to those days where they were considered probable contenders for an appearance at the state tournament every year. Head coach Nick Ozuna has brought a new approach his first two years on the job, and in that time he has also revived Bellaire’s playoff chances.
The Big Red Machine has made the Region 3 field each of his first two years and the team has even reached the second round, but coach Ozuna will be the first to tell you he is striving for more. He is looking to get the team back to the final rounds of the regional tournament and a berth at the state tournament, which Bellaire has not played in since 2002.
Could this be the year the Cardinals break through and return to their old glory days? They do have a lot of talent returning from an outstanding team in 2018, all looking for their team to get their names on that water tower in Town Square.
2. Which direction is the Bellaire HS football program headed?
After reaching the state football playoffs for eight consecutive years, the Cardinals finished fifth in District last fall and missed out on the postseason. So is this a blip on the radar for Coach Herb Kunz’s squad, or is the program headed back to those dark days that saw only three winning seasons in nearly 40 years of play?
District 18-6A has gotten stronger in the past few years with the addition of Heights High (formerly Reagan) and other schools improving, but Bellaire was becoming a perennial playoff participant just like Lamar and Westside— until a dismal 2018, when they finished fifth in the 8-team league and out of the playoffs.
So will they be motivated to erase the memory of last year and make 2019 their ninth playoff appearance in 10 years or the second consecutive year they didn’t get into the postseason?
3. Can the Bellaire girls cross country team get to the 6A state meet?
The Lady Cardinals have two of the best young runners in the city of Houston in freshman Anh Ho and sophomore Cate Urbani, and they return four of their top five runners from a squad that won the district championship last year. No wonder expectations are high for 2019.
The district will again be strong with defending district winner Carnegie Vanguard also returning their top performers, but Ho was the 18-6A champ and Urbani was second — and both should only continue to get better and faster in the future. Juniors Lauren Ohler and Andrea Lechin will also be back in the fold next fall, so the team will not only be good but very experienced as they try to run to the state meet in Round Rock in November.
Last year Ho and Urbani were both in the top 20 individually at regionals in Katy and a top 10 showing is what is needed to qualify for state. While it will be a challenge, it seems the potential is unlimited for the Bellaire girls cross-country team.
4. Can the Bellaire Little League Major 12s get to the Little League World Series?
It’s been nearly 20 years since Bellaire went to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. It was in 2000 that the Bellaire boys lost to Maracaibo, Venezuela, in the 54th championship game, and the league has been working hard ever since to duplicate that achievement.
Since that time, there have been numerous Houston area representatives that have earned a trip to Williamsport, including Katy, First Colony, Pearland, and most recently, Post Oak. But despite winning the District 16 championship a few times, Bellaire has been stymied in its hopes to go the distance, despite winning the District 16 tournament twice in the past five years.
But with the 10-year-old All-Stars winning the state tournament last year, hope is building for another shot at the World Series in the next year or two. It should make August interesting…