The Modesto High baseball team sat in a cluster near the front gate at Streeter Field, killing time between games with food, phone calls and thought.
Part of the conversation centered on baseball’s odd traditions, like “around the horn.” While it stumped even those with the longest roots, one tradition wasn’t lost on the collective: winning.
For Modesto High, winning might also be considered an odd tradition, because the Panthers have don’t much of it in the last 12 years. While rivals like Beyer, Enochs and Gregori have risen to power, Modesto has bumbled along.
During that stretch, the program hasn’t had a winning season or qualified for the postseason.
That could change this season.
“We’ve been close before,” Modesto coach Daryl Galloway said before the start of the third-place game at the 48th annual Dick Windemuth Easter Tournament. “But we’ve got a tough remaining schedule. The kids know that, too. I told them before this tournament, it’s not about winning but getting better each game so that we can compete for a playoff spot.”
Modesto is 10-11 following a fourth-place finish at the Windemuth, and the 10 wins are tied for the most in Galloway’s 12 seasons.
On Thursday, the Panthers woke up with the chance to play for the Windemuth title, but struggled defensively in a 10-0 loss to Saint Mary’s of Albany. Tyler Shafer pitched effectively for five innings, but got no help from his infield.
In the final game, Colton Cruce pitched admirably for six-plus innings, but Los Banos erased a 2-0 deficit and walked off in the seventh, 3-2, on a sacrifice fly by Josh Gomes.
Nevertheless, Modesto will take momentum from its Easter tournament.
The Panthers beat Bradshaw Christian and Hughson to reach the championship round, and received strong starts from Trent Prokes, Carlos Castillo and Cruce, who hadn’t pitched more than a few innings of relief all season.
“We were caught flat-footed this morning,” Galloway said, “but in our first two games, our pitching and execution was really good. I told them after (Thursday’s morning game), let it go, move forward and end up being better than you were.”
All of that sets the mood for the final two weeks of the Modesto Metro Conference season.
The Panthers are tied for third with Enochs at 7-5, two games back of Beyer (9-3) and five behind Gregori (12-0), the only unbeaten team in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
The MMC will send three to the Division I South tournament, a carrot the fun-loving Panthers have in their crosshairs.
As fate would have it, Modesto and Enochs will meet next week for a pivotal three-game set. The Panthers will host the games on Monday and Friday, giving them a leg-up in the postseason chase.
“(Streeter Field) is a huge advantage,” Galloway said. “Home-field is always an advantage. The kids know the idiosyncrasies of our field. Teams want to adjust their swings because they see the short fence. We know how the wind blows and how to play on this field.”
Both teams are in desperate need of a series victory.
After a 6-0 start, Enochs has lost five of its last six conference games. The Eagles were swept by Sylvan Avenue rival Beyer and lost two of three to Downey.
Modesto believes Enochs is vulnerable, but the Panthers have endured their own struggles in conference play. Modesto has lost five of its last seven MMC games, including four straight -- three to Gregori and one to Downey.
Don’t sleep on the Knights, either.
After losing 10 of its first 11 games, Downey has inched back into the race, thanks in part to the play of senior Brett Neves. The Knights are 6-9, still mathematically alive.
“It would mean everything to this team and school,” Galloway said of clinching a postseason berth. “Our kids know the history at MoHi. We know we've been overlooked, but we feel we can compete and match up well with any team.”