The Port Arthur News
PORT ARTHUR —
If your sink is leaking, you call a plumber.
If your baseball program needs building, you call a program rebuilder.
That’s exactly what Port Arthur Memorial did when it hired Jessie Riojas away from West Orange-Stark last season. The Titans have never made the baseball playoffs in school history, and Riojas was tasked in changing that.
Luckily, he had plenty of experience doing the same thing in his previous job. Though it had success under previous regimes, West Orange-Stark made the state tournament just once in its existence, back in 1991 when the Mustangs were semifinalists. Since that season, the Mustangs only made the playoffs four times.
In his first full season as head coach, Riojas had the Mustangs poised to get in the playoffs with a win on the season’s final day. They fell short that season of the third and final seed from District 21-3A, but made the playoffs in 2010 and advanced to the third round.
“West Orange had a history of success in the past, so we were just building it back up,” Riojas said. “We changed up everything from a mental aspect. We got the players to buy into the system in that first year.
“In that second year, we had everyone coming back. They had been in the system and knew what our expectations were. The guys were better trained physically and mentally. We got third spot, and made the playoffs for the first time since 2005. That was a pretty big gap.”
In that third round series, Riojas and the Mustangs took on Orangefield, who made the regional finals against Jasper and featured a number of college stars like Texas catcher Jacob Felts and Lamar pitcher Chase Angelle.
So, by the time that Riojas took over the Memorial team in 2012, he had a pretty good track record of turning a program around. He also saw the similarities between the West Orange-Stark program he inherited and the one at Memorial.
“Memorial was almost same situation,” Riojas said. “We are trying to change everything. We’re trying to get a winning mentality. We lost some close ones last year. This year’s team, we have a lot of returners that had a good offseason. This year, we’re competing a lot better. We can still get in the playoffs, we just have to fight through these final eight games of the district schedule.”
The mental aspect of the game is huge for Riojas. From Day 1, Riojas has tried to instill a new mentality with his teams, hoping that focus and determination will lead will help buttress the fundamentals he teaches every day.
In just a year, that mentality is starting to take hold.
After falling short of the fourth and final playoff spot last season, Riojas has gotten contributions from up and down his lineup this year. Freshman pitcher Ramiro Sanchez joins Robert Howard in a good rotation and the hitters are showing power this season, too.
The biggest lesson Riojas is trying to impart, however, is patience.
“Patience is a big thing,” Riojas said. “(Success) is not going to happen overnight. We’re trying to stay positive, and to keep them believing in our system. It’s all about working hard through good times and bad. That’s how a baseball season works. There are always going to be tough times. You’re always going to go through adversity. You have to be mentally strong.”
Riojas is seeing the team turn a corner on the mental side, but it’s been tough dealing with losses to North Shore, Deer Park and Baytown Sterling in the first half of district play.
“I can see how far we’ve come,” Riojas said. “We can see the light. We just have to keep working hard and be patient. We still have eight district games left and we’re one game behind Sterling and West Brook for a playoff spot.”
Memorial (8-8, 1-3 in 21-5A) will face another test on Thursday, as the Titans travel to Beaumont West Brook for a 7 p.m. game.
In other action on Thursday, the Nederland baseball team will try to grab a share of first place in District 20-4A, traveling to undefeated Lumberton. The Bulldogs only district loss came last Friday at the hand of Port Neches-Groves.
PN-G will try to extend a four game winning streak by hosting Beaumont Ozen at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Indians beat Vidor 4-0 on Tuesday and have now given up just two runs in their last 22 innings of play.
On the softball side, the PN-G girls will face district-leading LC-M at the Reservation at 7 p.m. Thursday. The Lady Indians are hoping to bounce back from a 5-0 shutout loss at Lumberton on Tuesday.
The Nederland softball team will take that long road trip to Livingston for a 7 p.m. game Thursday. The Lady Bulldogs have now won four straight games after losing to PN-G earlier this season.
Port Arthur Memorial will open the second half of its district schedule by hosting Deer Park at 6:45 p.m. Thursday.