HOUSTON – Heading into the season there were more questions than answers around Kingwood Park baseball.
It was a senior class that had lost its junior campaign due to COVID-19. They were a still slightly unproven group – being freshmen in 2018 when the Panthers went to the UIL State Tournament – that hadn't had the chance to breakthrough yet.
Pair that with the preseason chatter, rankings and articles, this group was fired up to step onto the diamond in 2021.
All they've done since then is prove the doubters wrong night-in and night-out on the way to a 19-4-1 record and 3-0 mark in district play.
"I think this team felt like they were better than the preseason polls or articles were saying," Kingwood Park coach Bruce Cox said. "I was saying I believe that too, but you have to prove it. And up until this point of the season, I think they have.
"They are for sure playing with a little chip on their shoulder and they practice that way too. It's been fun to watch. Fun to be a part of."
On the way to this record, the Panthers have defeated teams such as Klein Cain, Huffman, Port Neches-Groves, Dickinson, Crosby, Deer Park, and Atascocita.
"We're pitching it well, playing good defense and we're swinging the bat maybe better than we ever have in the history of our program," Cox said. "When you do those three phases of the game well, you're going to win a lot of games."
In the 2021 season, Kingwood Park's offense has been on fire.
The Panthers in 24 games have outscored foes 164-79, have gone 10-3-1 on the road, and 9-1 at home at the Park.
Cox's lineup is loaded from top to bottom, with Matt King hitting over .400 and six other Panthers hitting north of .300 so far this season. The group has also racked up 38 doubles and 18 home runs, which is one shy of tying the team record for home runs in a single season.
"Just complete buy-in from our kids," Cox said about the success of the lineup. "We haven't changed our system in terms of approach, swing mechanics, and things like that. This team is just buying into the philosophy. When you have 15 hitters that are buying in day-in and day-out and not caring who is in the lineup, good things are going to happen for your team.
"When our lineup is going, it's really tough. We have a lot of athleticism and speed in this lineup."
Like mentioned before, King – a UTSA baseball-commit – has the hottest bat in this Panthers lineup.
The senior is hitting .433 with 37 RBIs, 10 doubles, and nine home runs in 67 at-bats this season. He is just one home run shy of breaking the school record for single-season home runs and currently leads the State of Texas in the category.
"Matt is just unconscious right now in the box," Cox said. "A lot of people don't know how hard he works. He is such a hard worker and works on all aspects of the game. The mental and physical part and he's the emotional leader of our team. He's on fire.
"He's a great teammate and when he's doing it in the box for the Park and not Matt King, which is the kind of person he is, good things happen."
#9 on the szn @KPARKBaseball1 @CoachCox12 @LB21baseball @EliteSquadTexas pic.twitter.com/nYRrOv3k41
— Matt King (@mking_33) March 24, 2021
Even though King is hitting the cover off the baseball right now, like Cox mentioned before, this lineup is loaded one through nine.
Along with King, Jack Fulton (.396, 16 RBIs), Zach Rennard (Southern Arkansas-commit; .343, 15 RBIs), Marshall Burke (.339, 12 RBIs), Patrick Overmyer (.333), Jonas Holloway (UTSA-commit, .322, 15 RBIs) and CJ Schoettlin (Angelina JC, .307) have also played key roles in this lineup.
The pitching, which was a bit of a question mark coming in Cox said, has also been solid.
Led by senior Tyler Ward, the group has done their job. Ward leads the team with 22 innings, striking out 32 with a 1.91 ERA.
"He's doing what we expected of him and he's having a heck of a season," Cox said.
Other guys have also stepped up such as Zach Rennard (19 IP, 17 K, 2.21 ERA), Kaeden Gerth (17.1 IP, 21 K, 0.40 ERA), Ryan Waltmon (16.2 IP, 2.52 ERA), CJ Schoettlin and Cayden Hart, who has been solid coming out of the bullpen like Daniel Bresco was a few years ago for the Panthers.
"One thing we talk to our pitchers about is pounding the strike zone," Cox said. "We don't talk about walks, opponents' hits, we just get up there, throw strikes and trust your defense. The guys are really buying into that concept."
With such a hot start to the season, the question begins to be posed – is this team as good as the 2018 team that went to state?
In ways, Cox says they are eerily similar but what excites him, even more, is the prospect of them getting better the rest of the season.
"The 2018 team was very selfless," he said. "They didn't care who was on the field, they just wanted to go play baseball, compete and win for each other. So far, the 2021 version is doing it very similar, which is scary because I think that we're still not playing our best baseball. So, I don't know how good this team can be in 2021."
Kingwood Park is eyeing another deep run in the playoffs as they begin on Thursday.
Prior to last season, which was halted due to COVID-19, Kingwood Park girls soccer had made the UIL State Tournament for two-straight seasons and was seeking a third-straight trip to Georgetown.
In 2021, Kingwood Park is once again dominated District 20-5A play. The Lady Panthers went a perfect 14-0 and outscored opponents by 57 goals. Emma Yeager broke the single-season record for goals netting her 41st a few weeks ago.
VYPE traveled out to Kingwood Park a few weeks ago to talk to the Lady Panthers on preparing for another deep playoff run in 2021.