CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Ooltewah right-hander Zach Thompson on Thursday felt just as he did after his previous four decisions.
Like a winner.
Thompson threw a three-hitter and struck out 12 to lead the Owls past rival Soddy-Daisy, 5-1, in the final first-round game of the District 5-AAA baseball tournament at Bradley Central High School’s Toby McKenzie Baseball Complex.
With the victory, Ooltewah’s second in three games against the Trojans, the second-seeded Owls (21-11) advanced to Friday’s second-round against fourth-seeded Bradley Central (22-12) at 6:30 p.m. Bradley beat McMinn County, 3-2, on a bases-loaded walk in the seventh inning on Wednesday.
The McMinn County (6-24) and Rhea County (12-17) game Thursday night was rained out and rescheduled for Friday at 4 p.m., forcing the day's regularly slated games to later start times. The McMinn-Rhea winner will play Soddy-Daisy at 1 p.m. on Saturday, with the loser eliminated.
In Friday’s nightcap, with an approximate 9 p.m. start time, top-seeded Walker Valley (18-7), which won 10 of 12 regular season district games, takes on Cleveland (13-17). The Blue Raiders beat Rhea County, 4-2, on Wednesday.
“I felt terrific,” a jubilant Thompson said following the Owls’ impressive win. “I felt nice and loose. It was a hot day and that’s the best time to pitch.”
Thompson (5-0 with an ERA around 2.25) allowed singles to opposing starter Dalton Rogers in the first inning and Caden Ricketts in the sixth and a triple-that-shouldn’t-have-been to Austin Hickey in the seventh.
Only Ricketts was able to cross home plate, scoring on a throwing error by third baseman Drew Williams, an ugly sequence started when Andy Wright reached on a Cody Rhinehart fielding error that would have ended in the inning.
Two pitches before Hickey lined his shot to right, Williams and Owls catcher T.J. Binder converged on a high pop foul near the fence between home and third and shied away while watching the ball hit the ground. Williams, who called for the popup, was charged with an error. Then Owls right-fielder Chase Morrissey slipped down on Hickey’s smash and couldn’t recover quick enough to make the play.
“This was Zach’s seventh start,” Owls coach Brian Hitchcox said, “and his sixth quality start. His pitch count was high early (Thompson threw 64 pitches in the first three innings), then he had a couple of shorter innings and at the end we were just going to let him finish.
“If we don’t throw the ball all over the place and catch a popup it’s a clean slate. But he threw well. They’re a good offensive team and he neutralized them.”
Thompson was sharp from the start.
To his credit, however, were 39 strikes in his 64 pitches in the first three innings and he had given up just Rogers’ first-inning single. He walked two batters, hit a batter and Rogers reached on Rhinehart’s throwing error in the third, but recorded six strikeouts, two in each of the first three innings.
Thompson, a junior who already has verbally committed to Tennessee Tech University, said he went heavily with his fastball against the Trojans.
“I threw it about 80 percent of the time,” said Thompson, who also fires up a curve and changeup at his opponents. “I sensed that the fastball and curve would be my pitches, but I started getting hurt with the curveball. The fastball just worked tremendously well.”
Thompson’s effectiveness never waned. In innings three through five he threw 52 pitches, 42 for strikes, and in one stretch – starting with the final out in the third – retired nine straight before Ricketts’ two-out single in the sixth.
“He was great,” Soddy-Daisy coach Jared Hensley said. “He dominated us with his fastball all night. He never changed his approach going after us. Fortunately, for them we never changed our approach to him.
“We worked (Wednesday) on having a good approach going in the opposite direction and a good two-strike approach. With the exception of a few good at-bats, we never really did that. We struck out 12 times. Hats off to Mr. Thompson, but it wasn’t a very good job on our part.”
Thompson’s approach all season has been relative simple.
“Our coach always tells us (pitchers) if you walk a guy, try to get a no-hitter,” he said. “Give up one hit and try to hold them to that one hit. I went out there and tried to hold them as much as I could.”
It didn’t hurt hat Hitchcox didn’t work Thompson as much late in the regular season.
“We were able to rest him over the last couple of weeks and I think that paid off,” Hitchcox said. “His fastball had a lot of life tonight. He was sharp.”
While the Trojans were continually trying to catch up to Thompson’s heat, the Owls burned Rogers and reliever Hadyn Bailey for nine hits, including two doubles and two triples.
But Soddy-Daisy errors helped the Owls build a 3-0 lead on three unearned runs.
With two out in the first inning, Rhinehart reached on shortstop Nick Xoinis’ throwing error and then T.J. Binder followed with a run-scoring triple into the right-field corner.
Kevin Dupree tagged a double to left-center field to score Binder for a quick 2-0 lead.
Dupree went 3-for-3 with one RBI and scored once.
And speaking of approaches, Dupree has worked extensively for a week on “trying not to do too much” at the plate.
“I went up there calm and relaxed,” he said.
Has he been putting too much pressure on himself trying to play like a University of Tennessee signee, rather than a talented senior who has anchored the Owls’ offense the last two years?
“I’m just trying to do whatever it takes to help my team win,” he said. “UT is in the future. Right now I’m an Ooltewah Owl.”
Dupree said he saw the ball better on Thursday and that hasn’t always been the case in recent games.
“One thing that has been bothering me was taking my eye off the ball,” he said. “We worked on that, too. I saw some good pitches and just reacted.”
As it turned out, those first-inning runs were the only offense Thompson would need, but the Owls gave him more cushion.
Ooltewah’s Logan Fugate dropped a bunt that Rogers fielded only to throw wildly to first. Kyle Kapherr’s sacrifice bunt moved Fugate to second and he scored on Drew Toth’s hit to left.
The Owls’ scoring was held at bay over the next three innings, but they struck for two insurance runs in the sixth.
Dupree started the inning with a bad-hop triple over first baseman Austin Smith’s head, the ball rolling all the way to the right-field corner. Dupree scored on a wild pitch and with one out Williams doubles into the left-field corner. He came home on Kapherr’s two-out bunt single.
“It’s great to win the first game (in the tournament),” Dupree said. “We really wanted to beat these guys because it’s a rivalry game and always has been. There’s something about this game that blows it out of proportion where we really want it.”
Although they voted for it, Hitchcox and Hensley both bemoaned this year’s odd tournament odd format, which pitted the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds in the first round. They expressed their displeasure after the Owls’ 11-3 victory on April 24 that clinched the No. 2 seed for Ooltewah.
“The format is absolutely terrible,” Hitchcox said. “We just decided that there are quality teams in this tournament and we’re going to have to beat them sooner or later to get where we want to be. The order doesn’t matter, so we’ll take them as they come.”
Soddy-Daisy 000 001 0 –1 3 4
Ooltewah 210 002 x – 5 9 3
Rogers, Bailey (4) and Ricketts; Thompson and T.J. Binder.
McMinn County vs. Rhea County, 4 p.m.
Bradley Central vs. Ooltewah, 6:30 p.m.
Walker Valley vs. McMinn County-Rhea County winner, 9 p.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)