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Ridge Point junior Travis Vlasek.
The 2022 season has been a consistent upward trend for Ridge Point junior first baseman Travis Vlasek.
Vlasek is hitting .400 with 10 RBIs in the playoffs for the Panthers, who play Southlake Carroll in the Class 6A semifinal Friday in Round Rock. Vlasek has struck out only three times in 40 at-bats and come up big in clutch situations time and time again.
“I started the year with a lot of confidence after a great summer and great fall season but didn't have much success to start (preseason) tournament play,” Vlasek said. “I knew I was still a great hitter and knew hard work and confidence would prevail in the end, so I took a lot of extra cage swings and really focused on my mindset at the plate.”
Ridge Point junior Travis Vlasek.VYPE Media
Coach Clint Welch harped to Vlasek about “getting hot at the right time,” words the first year varsity letterman took to heart.
“I knew the beginning of the season wouldn't matter if I got hot coming into the playoffs, and that’s what I have done,” Vlasek said. “I've stopped worrying about my swing so much and focused on being confident and helping my team win.”
Vlasek bats cleanup in the lineup. He has had multiple hits in six of 12 playoff games. Over the last seven games, as the competition has gotten stiffer, he is hitting .478 (11 for 23) with eight RBIs.
“(Senior teammate) Justin Vossos always tells me ‘Swing 90 percent and the ball will fly,’ and that's something that has helped me greatly,” Vlasek said. “Earlier in the year, I was trying to go yard every time and it never seemed to happen. But being calm and loose has benefited greatly. Being in all these big moments has helped me become a much better hitter. I have had to experience pressure and still remain calm and confident.”
Justin Vossos was a freshman on the Ridge Point team that last went to state in 2019. Welch saw how physically mature Vossos was for his age and promoted him from the sub-varsity not long into the season.
Vossos rewarded Welch’s faith, leading the Panthers in hitting in the playoffs.
So it was only fitting that it was Vossos’ two-out RBI triple in the seventh inning of last week’s 2-1 Game 2 regional final win over Strake Jesuit that scored the winning run and secured the Panthers’ ticket to state.
“It’s incredible,” the senior shortstop said. “First year, go to state. Sophomore year, I think our team was even better, but COVID happened. Last year, not a very good year in the playoffs. Just to do it again my senior year, it’s incredible. I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else other than these boys out here.”
Ridge Point senior Justin Vossos.VYPE Media
Welch said Vossos, a Texas A&M signee, has been just as important, if not more so, off the field.
“The biggest thing we needed this year was leadership from the players,” Welch said. “You have to have players willing to call out others, which isn’t a popular thing to do because a lot of times those are your friends. Justin has always been a leader by example because he’s a workaholic, but the biggest change is he’s become a vocal leader this year.”
Vossos said he sees similarities between this year’s Panthers and the 2019 team that lost to Southlake Carroll in the state final.
“We compete. We never give up,” Vossos said. “No matter if we’re down, we just stick with it. Both teams have heart and play hard baseball. We play our game, see what happens. It’s worked out.”
REMATCH … KIND OF
Southlake Carroll beat Ridge Point, 17-0, in five innings in the ’19 state championship game.
But don’t call Friday’s semifinal pairing a rematch.
Only Vossos played on that Ridge Point club. The Dragons have only two players that played on their ’19 team: catcher Clark Springs and pitcher Griffin Herring.
“The rematch part doesn’t really matter,” Welch said. “I guess it’s good for the media, but they’ve got maybe a couple freshmen on that roster, and for us, other than Justin, nobody else played that game. Obviously, they’re a very good team. But the 2019 rematch thing doesn’t register with us or our program at all. It’s irrelevant.”
Ridge Point head baseball coach Clint Welch (right) looks on during a playoff game earlier this season.VYPE Media
What does matter for the Panthers is a tighter schedule at the state tournament that will affect routine.
“There’s definitely a learning curve if you’ve never been,” said Welch, who led the 2019 Panthers to state and went to state with Dulles in 2013. “The schedule, for obvious reasons, is very rigid by the UIL. There are televised games. Teams have to be in and out of the dugout, on and off the field in a timely manner. So, the biggest difference compared to anything else is it’s a frantic schedule.
“There’s no flexibility at all, and that’s not criticizing the UIL at all. It has to be that way. In a regular game, pregame infield may run a bit late, and the game may start 3-4 minutes later, but when you get to state, it does matter. It’s a faster-paced pregame than what guys are accustomed to.”
For instance, Welch will have players stretch before they get down to the field. There will also be an acclimation process to the environment and stadium.
Welch said he expects to take his players Thursday to Dell Diamond to check out the venue and surroundings.
“We really try hard to stay with our structured routine that we would use during any week,” he said.
Ridge Point junior right-hander Kellen Gradisar.
Kellen Gradisar is happy to be pitching again. It’s been a long time coming.
The Ridge Point junior right-hander had his sophomore season washed out after blowing out his elbow in the first inning of the first game of the season. Gradisar lasted just six pitches, with no soreness or warning.
“Initially, he was disappointed,” coach Clint Welch said. “He’s a competitor, and here we are in the first tournament of the year, and he goes down.”
On March 10, 2021, Gradisar was told he would need to undergo Tommy John surgery. Ten days later, he underwent the procedure that repairs a torn ulnar collateral ligament inside the elbow.
From there, Gradisar relied on his determination, work ethic and desire.
Rehabbing with physical trainers three days every week, Gradisar somehow worked his way back onto the field in 10 months. He was cleared to play around the time the Panthers started preseason practices in late January.
Little by little this season, Gradisar has methodically worked his way back. And now, in these playoffs, he has emerged as arguably Ridge Point’s No. 1 arm heading into this week’s Class 6A state semifinal against Southlake Carroll on Friday.
Gradisar, who doesn’t expect to be at complete full health until November, has been exceptionally dominant in the postseason, going 5-0 with an 0.82 ERA and 18 strikeouts to five walks over 34 innings. He has been Ridge Point’s Game 1 starter in the last three playoff series.
“It’s been amazing,” Welch said. “They get better and better at the surgery and with the rehab, as far as the medical side. It seems like the recovery time for the ones who work hard, and Kellen is one of those, seems to be shortening a bit for a lot of these guys. Late in the season, he’s been throwing well, throwing complete games, and has not wanted to come out.”
Ridge Point junior pitcher Kellen Gradisar.Courtesy
Gradisar has thrown at least six innings in every playoff start. Four of his five starts are complete games.
Sixty-five percent of his pitches have gone for strikes. Over the last three starts, he’s allowed just two earned runs.
“I definitely give credit to Coach Welch and (assistant) Coach (Michael) Dutka for their pitch decisions, as well as me being able to throw first-pitch strikes,” Gradisar said.
Gradisar has three primary pitches: fastball, curveball, changeup. He can throw any of them consistently for strikes. His best pitch is his curveball, and he can throw it any time in the count to keep hitters off balance.
His fastball tops out at 87 miles per hour.
“I feel like the recovery got me stronger, and just the fact I am able to pitch again gives me confidence to be better,” Gradisar said. “I’m already a better pitcher now, but, because of surgery, I lost a lot of weight and I’m still trying to get it back. I’m hoping by the end of summer, I’m close to full potential.”
Gradisar was under a strict pitch count when he returned to the field this season.
During the opening tournament, coaches tried to keep him around 30-40 pitches. The next week, it went up by 10 as his arm continued to show improvement.
Through much of district play, Welch and Dutka kept him under 60 pitches. During the postseason, Gradisar’s total number of pitches by start have been 89, 99, 100, 92, 93.
He averages about 14 pitches thrown per inning.
“He’s pitching efficient,” Welch said. “Going into his sophomore year, we had him penciled in as at least the No. 2 starter. He could always execute and throw three different pitches consistently for strikes. When you can do that, you can get people out at any level.
“What we’re seeing this year is what we thought we were going to get last year. We always had a high opinion of him.”
\u201cPitched a complete game, 2-1 Ridge Point victory against Katy Tompkins during 6A regional quarter finals. 20 innings pitched during playoffs with a .35 ERA. @RPHSBaseball @PBR_Texas @OFFSEASON_BB @baseball_expos @FlatgroundApp\u201d — Kellen Gradisar (@Kellen Gradisar)
First-pitch strikes and trusting his defense is Gradisar’s recipe for a successful return. He commends the athleticism and speed of outfielders Carter Groen, Mason Dossett and Owen Farris. He applauds infielders Travis Vlasek, Zion Stephens, Parker Martin and Justin Vossos for their playmaking and aggressiveness.
Gradisar said catcher JJ Kennett has been crucial because of his poise and pitch framing ability.
“We have a lot of talent on the bump, but it helps as a pitcher knowing you can trust your defense when the other team hits it,” Gradisar said.
For his part, Welch praises Gradisar. Not only in his prolific pitch repertoire, but in how he is always unflappable on the mound. Never rushed, never panicked.
“Great composure,” Welch said.
Gradisar knows what it’s like to battle and fight, to push and prod. He knows adversity well.
He’s overcoming it well, too.
“You know when you get that surgery that it’ll probably be at least a year before you’re back,” Welch said. “But he did what competitors do. He got over the disappointment, started looking forward, got focused, got the surgery done, knew exactly what he had to do for rehab and followed all the protocols. It was no surprise to us that he was back within the year timeframe because of the work ethic that he has. It’s been incredible.”