Early season prep baseball tournaments are meant for a few things; primarily competition, repetition, and learning a few things about your team over the course of a few games.
The Ooltewah Owl baseball nine apparently has learned it likes collecting championship trophies in them as well.
For the second year in a row, the Owls won the longstanding Wildcat Classic, dropping McMinn County, 8-6, on a sun splashed Sunday at Hixson’s John Plumlee Stadium in a rematch of last year’s Wildcat Classic finals.
“This is what you want to get from an early season tournament.
You want to be able to compete and get some young guys out there under that pressure,” said Ooltewah coach Brian Hitchcox. “Winning it is a bonus, but it’s also nice to see the guys start to come into their own.”
The Owls threw a pair of sophomores against the Cherokees and found out both of them had more than a little bit of competiveness in them.
Ooltewah starter Chris Bayne pitched into the fifth inning and twice escaped bases-loaded jams in the first two innings without surrendering a run. Jacob Robinson overcame one bad pitch before retiring the final seven McMinn hitters in a row on just 16 pitches.
“I just tried to not lose my focus out there with people on base. When you struggle like I did early you just have to focus on the next pitch and then the next one. It’s all about trusting the defense and throwing strikes, and that’s all I wanted to do out there,” said Bayne.
Ooltewah (3-3) staked him to an early 3-0 lead in the first on a pair of big two-out hits.
A Jake Sullivan walk, a mishandled popped up bunt and a ground out for the second out, put runners at the corners. Tyler Phillips then laced a sharp single to right center to plate Sullivan.
Another walk loaded the bases and Kaben Bragg followed with his two-out single up the middle to plate two more.
The Cherokees (3-3-1) loaded them on a pair of walks sandwiched around a single by Cooper Roberts. Bayne then struck out one and got the third out on fly ball to right.
He walked a tight rope again in the second with a Ryland Edgemon single, a hits batsman and a walk loaded them, but Bayne again induced a fly ball to escape the jam. In the third, the Cherokees got two more singles before a ground ball and a fly out ended that threat.
“To work out of those two jams in the first two innings and then again in the third for a sophomore against a lineup like that showed a lot of competiveness. Those are the type things you want to see in an early season tournament,” Hitchcox added.
The Owls tacked on a run in the third without a hit. Phillips was hit by a pitch, sacrificed to second with a bunt, moved to third on two walks and scored on a wild pitch for a 4-0 lead. Payton Kiser then drove in a run in the top of the fifth after Bryce Matthews’ walk and a wild pitch put him in scoring position. Kiser’s liner to left fell and Matthews’ slide avoided the tag at the plate.
McMinn County finally got a base runner home in the fifth and liked it so much they did it a bunch. After stranding nine runners in the first four innings, Ethan Belcher drew a walk and Emery Peterson banged a triple off the right field wall for the first run to end Bayne’s outing.
Robinson relieved with two out and promptly walked his first batter. Two straight grounders were misplayed to score a run and load the bases for Roberts, who jumped on the first pitch he saw for a grand slam over the left field fence and suddenly the Cherokees were up 6-5.
Ooltewah got it back even after Sullivan and Andrew Manning got back-to-back singles with the speedy Sullivan going to third. A pitch later and Manning stole second to put both runners in scoring position. Trevor Wiggs grounder to second scored Sullivan and it was 6-all.
And Robinson had put the one bad pitch behind him.
“I knew the offense would come back and get us back in it, and I had a job to do. I was more upset about the walk I gave up than the homer, but I knew I had to come out and throw strikes,” Robinson said.
The Owls did what they do best in the seventh to get the winners across. An infield single by Bragg started it and pinch runner Jack Sloan forced a hurried throw to second on a ground ball to short that was dropped. Sloan then led a double steal, easily getting to third with Keiser taking second.
Then it was a game of chess.
McMinn brought its infielders in expecting a bunt, but when Owen Parker worked it to a 3-1 count, they went back to regular depth. Hitchcox then called for a safety squeeze and Parker laid down a beauty to first base and Sloan scored easily. A misplayed grounder allowed an insurance run in and Robinson set the Cherokees down in order in the bottom of the seventh on four pitches.
“So far this season all we tell them is stop giving away opportunities. We did it with runners on base early and we did it with our defense late. Giving away things is the difference in a game. (Hitchcox) is notorious for the squeeze bunt and we expected it, but they executed it perfectly,” said Cherokee coach David Ray.
“I just knew that once it got to 3-1 with our nine hole hitter up, the chances were good it was going to be a strike and Parker is a great bunter. He’s been hot for us, but I felt good about working for the one run and it worked out,” Hitchcox added.
McMinn earned the trip to the finals with wins over Red Bank, Central, Hixson and a tie against James Clemens (Madison, Al).
Ooltewah beat Red Bank, Great Gwinett Christian and Hixson, and dropping one to James Clemens. The Owls scored 56 runs in the four games.
“We blew a lead against Walker Valley early in the week and then they beat us pretty good and we were on our heels, so this tournament accomplished a lot for us. We had a much better approach at the plate and some good reps against live pitching. We settled in nicely,” Hitchcox added.
OOLTEWAH 301 011 2 – 8 7 2
McMINN COUNTY 000 060 0 – 6 7 3
Bayne, Robinson (5) and Parker; Ronne, Frank (3) and Edgemon.
(Contact James Beach at email@example.com or twitter @beachnut1134)