With the high school postseason reaching the nitty-gritty stage, Ooltewah’s District 5-AAA kingpin Owls lead a contingent of seven Hamilton County baseball teams entering regional competition, each three wins shy of reaching the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association’s Spring Fling – where state champions are crowned.
On Monday, the Owls (24-12) host Warren County (20-17) at 7 p.m., while Boyd-Buchanan and Silverdale Baptist in Class A and Central and Red Bank in Class AA try to move one step closer to claiming region titles (see game times below).
Region finals are scheduled for Wednesday and Sectionals – the last step toward earning berths in the state tournaments – will be played Friday.
Ooltewah won four of five games to claim the district tournament title at Bradley Central High School, including taking two-of-three from regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Walker Valley.
The season has pretty much played out as coach Brian Hitchcox felt it would.
“I thought we would be strong defensively because we had a good defense last year and most of the pieces to that team were back,” he said. “I thought we would have good pitching depth. Offensively, I figured we would have to manufacture some runs because this team would have to do the little things to score, and that’s how it evolved. We were in a lot of low-scoring games and the team ERA is about 2.60.”
Warren County gained a spot opposite Ooltewah by winning a best-of-three series with No. 2 seeded Coffee County and finishing second to top-seed Cookeville.
Here’s a closer look at the Class AAA matchup:
Hitchcox, 31, is in his fourth season and has a 72-35 record with the Owls. His overall record, including two seasons at Notre Dame, is 142-71. In six years as a high school head coach, Hitchcox teams have never failed to win fewer than 20 games.
Hitchcox’s baseball experience is extensive. His first Notre Dame team and second Ooltewah squad, each produced Hitchcox’s career-high of 28 victories.
He played high school ball at Rhea County and collegiately at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. As a junior in 1999, Hitchcox, born in Crossville, Tenn., was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 25th round and played in their farm system until 2005, reaching as high as Triple A.
“In spring training in 2004, I was the last guy cut on the big-league team,” Hitchcox said. “We were about to board a plane for Philadelphia and they had a new stadium, but it was tough to be an infielder (Hitchcox mostly played second base or shortstop) with the Phillies. They had guys like Ryan Howard, Jim Thome, Jimmy Rollins and David Bell. I played 25 games with the big-league club during spring and kept hanging around. There were 27 guys, then 26 and Bell had a back issue. I thought I had a chance, but I was sent down (to Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre).
“It was a great experience and I met a lot of awesome guys. Baseball is a rough business but I had a lot of fun.”
Hitchcox was finishing college and serving as an assistant to Wes Caldwell with the Rhea County baseball team in 2006 when the Notre Dame job opened up after George Oleksik stepped down. Hitchcox was hired prior to the 2006-07 school year.
In his two seasons, Notre Dame went 49-25 and didn’t have a home field. The Irish played 34 games in Hitchcox’s second season and had just four “home” games using Chattanooga State’s field off Amnicola Highway.
“Notre Dame didn’t have a field and weren’t going to build a field,” Hitchcox said. “There was talk about a field, but all that stuff fell through. We practiced at a field on Cloud Springs Road in Georgia. All the stuff East Hamilton is going through now is nothing to what we endured.”
Warren County’s Adam Childs is in his first year at the McMinnville school, having relocated from Franklin, Ind.
After completing his college career, Childs returned to serve as an assistant coach at his prep alma mater, Franklin Community High School and held the position for three years.
Warren County hired a new executive principal, Anthony Cassel, who also had Indiana roots and knew the Childs family.
When the baseball vacancy came about, Cassel contacted Childs about the position.
“(Cassel) called me on a Friday to see if I would be interested in the job,” Childs said. “I came down on a Monday for an interview, was offered the job and accepted it on a Friday. I moved down the next Wednesday and school started the following Monday.”
The whirlwind hiring process meant that the 12 seniors on Warren County’s 2012 roster would soon meet their fourth coach in four years.
“There wasn’t a real good baseball foundation here,” Childs said, “so it wasn’t hard to get players to buy into what I wanted to do. The hardest part was learning all their names.”
Childs told his players each would get a fresh start with him.
“Whatever was in the past certainly needed to be changed,” the coach said.
Starting in 2009, the Pioneers put up season records of 10 wins, five and then a humbling low of two in 2011.
Yet, the early meeting with coach and players was unbelievably optimistic, Childs recalled.
“There was enough talent here that we talked about getting more wins this year than the three previous years combined,” he said. “While that was our goal, I honestly was not sure I expected us to achieve it, especially since I didn’t know a lot about the teams we would be playing. I just thought it was possible.”
This is Warren County’s first trip to region in 14 years.
Ooltewah probably has one of the state’s deepest high school pitching staffs.
Hitchcox used five starters in the district tournament and still had left-hander Logan Fugate in his hip pocket.
Fugate, mostly an everyday outfielder, did make a relief appearance in the Owls’ 4-0 loss to Walker Valley that forced a second-and-deciding title game last week.
Four of the Owls’ five starters turned in complete-game performances that resulted in impressive victories.
Zach Thompson started Ooltewah’s run to the district title with a three-hit, 12-strikeout gem in a 5-1 win over Soddy-Daisy.
Then Kevin Dupree checked Bradley Central with a five-hit shutout as the Owls won 5-0.
Up next was Jackson McClain, who picked up a 7-5 win over Walker Valley. McClain went into the sixth inning with a two-hitter and 7-1 lead before waffling in the sixth when the Mustangs scored four runs. He retired Walker Valley in order in the seventh.
Jared Ryan started the next game and gave up three runs on four hits in 2-2/3 innings. The Mustangs won 4-0, with Thompson and Fugate mopping up in relief.
In the title-clinching 8-0 rout of Walker Valley, Williams turned in a sparkling three-hitter with 10 strikeouts.
“I really feel comfortable with six guys,” Hitchcox said. “If they pound the zone with quality pitches and we play good defense, we’ll be in a lot of games. Those bats we’re using now won’t allow teams to put up a lot of crooked numbers without some help (errors).
“When you have good pitching and the other team doesn’t have a lot of power that plays into your favor.”
Thompson and McClain each are 6-0 with 2.69 and 2.90 ERAs, respectively, heading into the Warren County game. The staff’s best ERAs belong to Dupree (4-4) at 1.94, Williams (4-3) at 2.16, Fugate (3-2) at 2.42 and Ryan (3-2) at 2.45.
Thompson and Dupree lead all starters with 62 strikeouts apiece.
Owls pitchers put up a collective 1.80 ERA in the district tournament, allowing just 10 runs – nine earned – and 26 hits while striking out 32 and walking six in 35 innings.
Childs said he relies heavily on three senior starters – Micah McColloch, Derek Brumley and Logan McCormick – but provided no statistics on those players.
McCormick, although he won “two or three” games, drew some tough assignments like Houston High of Germantown and Tullahoma.
“I’m not sure who will pitch on Monday because we’re still trying to figure that out,” Childs said. “It will probably be one of those seniors, but we want to learn more about Ooltewah.”
Hitchcox doesn’t feel the need to divulge his starters prior to their pregame warm-up session in the bullpen and didn’t break that pattern for Monday’s showdown.
New bats imposed on high school teams across the country have returned the game to its purest form, Hitchcox said.
“They haven’t impacted so much the averages, but definitely there are differences in power, RBIs and extra-base hits. I’m seeing a lot more infield hit, more bloopers into the outfield. There are more sacrifice bunts, hitting behind runners and more infield defense. The game is good either way, but this way is more fun to coach rather than sitting over there (in the dugout) waiting on a three-run homer.
“Those first aluminum bats were awful. The ones I played with were lethal weapons and dangerous. No doubt the people who made the decision to change made the right one. I would vote for composite wood bats. They don’t break as much and they’re cheaper.”
Junior Chase Morrissey has the team’s top batting average at .446. Seniors T.J. Binder (.415), Cody Rhinehart (.371) and Drew Toth (.355) follow Morrissey. Williams, a junior, is hitting .328, sophomore Brody Binder .320 and Dupree, .316.
Again, without providing statistics, Childs said sophomore shortstop Logan Underhill, senior catcher Garrison Holmes and junior designated hitter Daulton Foster are his leading hitters.
Foster opened the season as a third baseman, but fell ill and other players stepped up and relegated him to DH duties.
“We’re not a power team,” Childs said. “We’ve hit three home runs all year. We stress some small ball, but in some games we’ve had 15 hits. We’ll always hustle and you will never see one of our guys jog to first base.”
Hitchcox said he doesn’t know much, just that he’s familiar with some of the names of Pioneers players. His goal is to find out as much as possible to obtain “tendencies, patterns and trends” and simplify that information for his players.
“Sometimes too much information can muddy the waters a little bit,” he said.
Childs, during his phone interview with Chattanoogan.com, knew little more about Ooltewah than Hitchcox knew about Warren County.
“I know they have quite a few lefties in their lineup,” he said, “and that Dupree looks like their No. 1 pitcher, and he’s a lefty, too. I’ve heard they are solid up the middle defensively, solid one-through-nine in the lineup and real good in the middle of that lineup.”
Monday's Region Baseball Schedule
Silverdale Baptist (10-10) at South Pittsburg (28-7), 5
Whitwell (19-12) at Boyd-Buchanan (23-8), 5
Central (24-13) at Sequoyah (26-5), 5
Polk County (18-12) at Red Bank (17-21), 7
Livingston Academy at Notre Dame (23-7), 5:30
Signal Mountain (19-12) at Smith County (24-5), 6
Warren County (20-17) at Ooltewah (24-12), 7
Walker Valley (24-11) at Cookeville (26-6), 7
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)