Veteran coach Jeff Hopkins has a unique way of handling the Collierville High School baseball program.
Rather than varsity, junior varsity and freshmen teams, Hopkins uses the labels Major League, Triple A and Double A for his Dragons squads.
“The kids love it,” Hopkins said of his innovative system. “It’s like a minor-league system and our players understand that. We have a guy sick or one gets hurt, he’s going down to Triple A and get some work in. A guy not hitting well might be sent down to straighten himself out and then we’ll bring him back up.”
This weekend Hopkins, former head coach at the University of Memphis, called up three sophomores, including Justin Fowlkes, from Triple A to be available on the Dragons’ “Major League” roster. All three players can pitch, Hopkins said.
Fowlkes made his coach look like a genius.
The smooth-throwing left-hander pitched three-hit, shutout ball for six innings, the Dragons scored four unearned runs in the sixth without a hit and Collierville – the defending Class AAA state champion – cruised past host Soddy-Daisy, 7-0, in the Trojan Classic at Tom Higgins Field.
After that game, East Hamilton bounced back from a 4-3 loss to Wilson Central earlier in the day and pounded highly touted Cookeville, 16-3. Cookeville put up nine unearned runs to beat Soddy-Daisy, 13-6, in Friday’s first game.
Collierville (23-6), ranked ninth in the latest Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association poll, routed Wilson Central, 10-0, in the late game.
The tournament winds up Saturday with eight more games, including the championship contest at 3:30 p.m. at Soddy-Daisy. Other games will be played at Red Bank, Ooltewah and Central high schools.
“If they win this thing this year we’re going to rename it the Dragon Classic,” Soddy-Daisy coach Jared Hensley said. “I think they’ve won it every year except one since I’ve been here. They’ve got a great team.”
Fowlkes begrudgingly gave up three hits – singles to Dev DeMatteo and Cale Morgan and a double to Tre Carter – and only twice allowed two runners on base at the same time. Just one reached third and, obviously, none scored.
He struck out three and walked four before giving way to submariner Peyton Coleman, who retired the Trojans in order in the seventh, including two strikeouts.
“I’ve known for about a week I was going to pitch over here,” Fowlkes said. “I was a little nervous facing the first batter, but I threw a strike and I was all right. I feel like I can come out here and do that all the time.”
The Dragons had district games on Tuesday and Wednesday, forcing Hopkins to call for more arms for the three-day Trojan Classic.
Fowlkes was 4-0 in “Triple A” and looked like a seasoned veteran against the Trojans.
“I can absolutely believe he’s 4-0,” Hensley said. “He could be 4-0 in our district (5-AAA). He located his pitches well, threw to both sides of the plate with a fastball and threw the breaking ball for strikes. I tip my hat to the kid. He’s going to be a good one for them.”
Fowlkes struck out two to start the fifth, but gave up a walk and Carter’s double. With Morgan holding up at third on the hit, Carter was caught in a rundown between second and third for the final out.
In the sixth, Dev DeMatteo singled and Caden Ricketts reached on an error. Fowlkes got gritty and retired the next three Trojans.
“I told him his job was to pound the zone and let us play defense behind him,” said Hopkins, who was the head baseball coach at the University of Memphis from 1991-2000. “That’s exactly what he did. He’s going to be a good one and he’ll make me a pretty good coach one of these days.”
Already up 3-0, the Dragons scored runs on an error, balk, and two wild pitches from Ricketts in the lead-stretching sixth inning. Runners that scored reached base on two walks, a hit batsman and an error.
Six of the seven runs off Ricketts were unearned.
“We can put pressure on teams with our speed,” Hopkins said. “(Brandon) Montgomery, our shortstop
Ricketts gave up five hits, struck out four and walked five in a complete-game effort.
But the Trojans (13-12) could not overcome 15 unearned runs in Friday’s two games, something that has plagued them the entire season.
“I don’t know another team in America that can do that and win,” Hensley said. “You can’t go out and not score and give teams that many runs and expect to win. It’s just not going to happen.
“If we don’t start making plays, and I’ve told my guys a handful of times, our season is going to end abruptly in about two weeks.”
Cookeville coach Butch Chaffin elected to use several reserve players against East Hamilton and the Hurricanes made the Cavaliers pay dearly.
Matt Milita led the Hurricanes’ 16-hit attack by going 3-for-3, with a double. He drove in three runs and scored twice.
Nicholas Woods, Hunter Owen and Quinn Griffith each had two hits. Owen scored twice and drove in a pair of runs.
That was more than enough offense for the Hurricanes (16-13) to overcome five errors and still win easily.
“Cookeville is a very good team,” Hurricanes coach Steve Garland said. “We played them earlier in the season and lost 5-3 in a good ballgame. I have a ton of respect for coach Butch Chaffin, but things just snowballed for us. Our guys took advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves.
“Offense was the story of this game, but we’ve struggled with putting offense and pitching together. We got that tonight.”
In a seven-run fourth, in which the Hurricanes sent 11 batters to the plate, East Hamilton a two-run double from Milita, Hunter Parker added a two-run single, and Griffith, Nick Gratigny and Owen threw in RBI singles for good measure.
Milita and Matty Henshaw had RBI hits in the fifth and the game became a full-blown blowout when East Hamilton scored six times in the seventh inning.
The Hurricanes got three runs on two infield errors, another on one of three walks and Owen ripped a laser-shot double to center to drive in two runs as 12 East Hamilton batters went to the plate.
“Our one-word motto for this weekend was ‘aggressive,’ ” Garland said. “That was our approach in this game, but I thought we didn’t do a good job of competing in the first game.”
According to the pregame plan, Garland used five pitchers – Woods, Hunter Smith, Henshaw, Ethan Hollingshead and Hayden Duke against the Cavaliers.
“We wanted to use some guys who didn’t throw that many pitches this week before the tournament,” Garland said.
The Cavaliers, who scored twice on East Hamilton errors, fell to 18-5 on the season. Derek Edgington had Cookeville’s only RBI, that coming on a single to left-center field in the third inning.
Collierville 100 024 0 – 7 5 2
Soddy-Daisy 000 000 0 – 0 3 3
Fowlkes, Coleman (7) and Kelley; Ricketts and Clift, Workman (7).
East Hamilton 001 720 6 – 16 15 5
Cookeville 000 101 1 – 3 4 3
Woods, Smith (3), Henshaw (5), Hollingshead (6), Dukes (7) and Fahler, Owen (6).
Wilson Central vs. Soddy-Daisy, 9 a.m.
Cookeville vs. Collierville, 11:30 a.m.
Championship game, 3:30 p.m.
At Red Bank
Red Bank vs. Cleveland, 9 a.m.
Lincoln County vs. Rhea County, 11:30 a.m.
McMinn County vs. Halls, 9 a.m.
Houston vs. Central, 9 a.m.
Ooltewah at Central, 11:30 a.m.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)