Chad Ricker

Argyle pitcher Chad Ricker celebrates a strikeout against Jasper during a Class 4A semifinal last year in Austin. Tonight, the Eagles face Iowa Park with a return to the state tournament on the line.

Chad Ricker spent last season’s playoff run itching to get on the mound as a starter in big-time, high-pressure moments.

But with Bryson Hudgens and Sean Bolin locked in as Argyle’s top two pitchers, Ricker’s opportunities to start in the postseason were limited. So he shined out of the bullpen, allowing just four hits and one unearned run while racking up 15 strikeouts in seven innings of relief in the playoffs.

Ricker didn’t get to make a postseason start, but he bided his time before emerging as the Eagles’ ace this year. Ricker has starred in that role ever since, posting a 10-0 record with a 1.04 ERA in 69 1/3 innings this season.

In the playoffs, Ricker is 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 24 innings. He hasn’t allowed a hit in his last 13 innings, helping push the defending state champions back to the regional final for the fifth time in six seasons.

Ricker will look to continue that domination in his first elimination start Wednesday night when the Eagles take on Iowa Park in a one-game playoff at 8 p.m. at Abilene Christian. The winner will advance to the Class 4A state tournament.

“I love it,” Ricker said. “I’m a competitive guy, and I love being out there in the big-time moments. I just want to keep it rolling, keep competing for my team and keep getting wins. I’m not going to be anxious for the moment — I’ve been in big moments before in high school and select ball, so this is nothing new for me.”

While Ricker didn’t make a start in the playoffs last year, he was one of the most important pieces of Argyle’s state title team. He was a shutdown weapon out of the bullpen in the postseason and finished the year with a 7-0 record, a 0.36 ERA, a 0.62 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) and 58 strikeouts in 39 innings.

When he wasn’t on the mound, Ricker was a reliable first baseman and hit .369 with 32 RBIs and 34 runs. As a senior, Ricker is hitting .326 with 34 RBIs, 24 runs and five home runs. He’s batting .370 with runners in scoring position and has a 1.029 OPS (on-base plus slugging).

Ricker’s consistent production comes as no surprise to those who have followed the Argyle program over the years. As a sophomore, Ricker started at catcher and third base. He was lights-out at first base and on the mound last year, and has now evolved into the Eagles’ ace while also batting fourth in the lineup.

“Chad is a team guy,” Argyle center fielder Dillon Carter said. “You could put him in center, right, behind the plate, second, short — it really doesn’t matter where you put him, he’s going to give it his all. It’s crucial knowing that he’s on the mound doing it for everyone around him and not just himself.”

With Ricker on the mound against Iowa Park, the Eagles — who have won 25 straight games and outscored their last five opponents 75-2 — are as confident as ever despite playing in their first elimination game of the year. Argyle defeated the Hawks 9-2 on March 14 in the regular season, but Wednesday’s matchup will feature a much different look.

Tate Van Poppel got the win for the Eagles in the first meeting, while Kaleb Gafford started for Iowa Park before Logan Kimbro came on in relief.

Ricker will start for Argyle this time around, and Chris Dickens is expected to start for Iowa Park. Dickens is 13-1 with a 0.84 ERA and gave up two hits with eight strikeouts in the Hawks’ Game 1 win over Hereford in the regional semifinals.

Iowa Park has won 20 straight games since falling to the Eagles, and the Hawks’ pitchers have allowed just 13 runs in that stretch.

Beyond Dickens, Iowa Park is led by Kase Johnson (.469, 46 runs, 28 RBIs), Kaden Teafatiller (.427, 33 RBIs, 14 doubles, four home runs), Gafford (.398, 35 RBIs, 23 runs) and Trent Green (.354, 37 RBIs, 31 runs). Dickens, like Ricker, hits cleanup and is batting .452 with 41 RBIs, 28 runs and 18 doubles.

“I just need to keep doing what I’ve been doing,” Ricker said. “It’s about attacking hitters, getting outs efficiently and just pitching deep into the game.”

Ricker, Carter (.406, 21 RBIs, 54 runs), Preston King (.370, 23 RBIs, 48 runs), Brenden Dixon (.358, 45 RBIs, 38 runs), Alex Gonzales (.349, 32 RBIs, 29 walks) and Hayden Clearman (.379, 41 RBIs, 39 walks) are among the leaders for Argyle.

Both teams are anticipating a large crowd in Abilene with a trip to state on the line. Argyle and Iowa Park are the only teams in the state, regardless of classification, playing a one-game playoff rather than a best-of-three series in the regional finals.

“They know we have to go there relaxed and not all hyped up because we’re having to play a one-game series,” Argyle coach Ricky Griffin said. “They know this thing is over if we don’t take care of business Wednesday night. I don’t think we’ll be overhyped, but we will be ready to play.”

BRADY KEANE can be reached at 940-566-6869 and via Twitter at @BradyKeane.

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