Season endings are always painful, but much like a burn injury, there are degrees of pain.
The Lookout Valley Jackets saw a monster season come to a close Saturday one step shy of a Class A state tournament berth, falling 7-4 to a good University High School out of Johnson City in a Class A Sectional battle.
The immediate aftermath cut deep into a team which had come so far. Losing a final game in postseason stings, but falling just short of the brass ring, was third degree burn painful in this case.
“I really don’t even want to talk about the game, but rather those kids over there and what they have meant to this school and to this community,” said an emotional LV coach Lance Rorex.
“They’ve set the tone for the future of this program and they’ve done it by being great kids. I told these seniors I’m sad not because we lost, but because I’m going to miss seeing them every day at school and at the practice. These guys will go out and be good husbands and good fathers, and it’s been a pleasure being around them,” Rorex continued. “It does hurt.”
After winning just 13 games a year ago, the Jackets were on the cusp of further greatness beyond the district and region titles they already owned, but try as they may, could not quite overcome a fine great pitching performance from UH starter Jack Bembry and a few too many bad bounces.
The Bucs did an impressive job applying pressure throughout the game, but LV never backed down until the very end. In the second inning, LV left fielder Avery Hamrick made a nice running catch to strand two runners in scoring position, and it was obvious the two schools would scrap for every morsel they got.
The Bucs finally drew first blood in the third inning to break up the scoreless duel between Jacket starter Riley Phillips and Bembry. Cas Blevins barely missed a homer off the right centerfield fence, but two batters later Jakob Hare didn’t make the same mistake. Hare’s fly ball had just enough on it to clear the left field barrier 300-feet away for a 2-run homer.
On cue, the Jackets did what they have done all year long in carving up 26 opponents for the win column. They put it behind them as quick as it happened and posted a three-run bottom of the inning with two of their three hits on the day.
Hamrick reached on a hard ball up the middle that Bembry nicked with his glove to keep it in the infield. A sac bunt and a passed ball put him on third and when Nathan Hart walked, LV had runners on the corner. Junior Zane Howard then drilled a double that rolled to the fence, allowing Hamrick and Hart to score and tie it at 2-all.
Rorex’s philosophy has been aggressive base running all year, and it paid off when he had Howard steal third and the throw from the catcher sailed into left to send Howard home for the 3-2 lead.
University High (22-10) used the long ball to get it back even again when Blevins stroked a two-out solo shot to deep right center for a 3-3 tie. It was to the identical spot his third inning double was launched, but had just enough petro behind it to clear the top of the fence.
“We hit a lot of balls hard and some of them were right at them, and some of them weren’t. The home runs were big, but no matter how we tried we just couldn’t get the separation we wanted from them to break it open, and that’s a credit to them,” said University coach Josh Petty.
Bembry settled in nicely and retired eight LV hitters in a row after the third-inning eruption, and the Bucs finally got him a lead with two runs in the sixth as Phillips began to tire. A leadoff walk to Hare and a seeing-eye dog single just past the third baseman’s glove put runners on first and second and ended Phillips day.
Cole Janeway relieved and immediately got a force out at third and walked a guy to load the bases. A mental mistake then cost the Jackets dearly when Janeway induced an easy grounder to first base. Instead of going home immediately, though, Rylan Chandler made the decision to get the out at first and try to strong arm the throw at home for the double play. The ball sailed high and two runners scored to make it 5-3.
Lookout Valley being Lookout Valley, though, responded in a way it has all season in the bottom of the sixth and if not for a missed call by the umpire would have tied it back up.
Joshua Ibach singled to right and Chandler worked a walk to put two on. Gavin Slavin then put down a sac bunt Bembry fielded, looked at third, before firing high to pull the first baseman off the bag where a hustling Slavin beat it out to load the bases.
Christian Sexton followed with a deep drive to right that was deep enough to score Ibach. Pinch runner Chris Dixon elected not to tag at second, but did move to third on a fielder’s choice ground out to first, who fielded and got Slavin on the force at second. The play left runners at the corners and that’s when all three umps working the game somehow, inexplicably, missed an obvious balk call that should have scored Dixon from third.
Bembry made a fake move from the rubber that sent the runner diving back to first which should have been a balk, and then he immediately fired to the plate with his pitch with no call. Rorex argued to no avail and Bembry got out of the inning with a tapper back to the mound.
After Howard made a spectacular diving play up the middle to field and then throw the lead off hitter out to start the seventh, the wheels begin to fall off. Janeway hit the next batter and with Hare coming to bat, Howard was called on in relief. He got Hare on a soft liner to short for the second out before Carter Pollock executed on a hit-and-run to put them on the corners. Michael Degennaro then lofted a fly ball down the right field line that just fit inside the foul line, and with the entire outfield shifted towards left, both runners scored on the double for a 7-4 margin.
Bembry struck out the first two hitters and got a fly ball to center for the final out, sending University to state where it will join South Pittsburg, Greenback, Loretto, Trinity Christian, Gordonsville, Columbia Academy and Union City in a quest for the Class A title.
Phillips, one of four seniors on the team, lost for the first time this season after posting a 9-0 start. He broke his thumb midway through the season, but rehabbed it hard so he could pitch and play the field even though it never got healed enough to put the bat back in his hand.
“My mindset has been to do whatever I could whenever I could to help this team. That’s the sort of team we are, everybody just wants to do whatever they can. I’m just so proud to be a part of this team with these guys and those coaches,” Phillips said.
“I knew we had something special and I knew we had potential coming off of last year, and I saw the hard work we all put in to get here, and that part hurts, but I couldn’t be prouder to say that I’ve been a part of a group of guys,” Phillips added.
Howard, who probably goes through a box of laundry detergent weekly in his household to clean the dirt and grass from his uniform following games, walked from the field hurt but hopeful for better outcomes ahead.
“This was a big step for us. We didn’t win many games in the past, but we set our goals pretty high this year and we almost got to them. We have a lot to build from for next year, and now it will be up to us rising seniors to do the job that the ones who are leaving us did. Getting here is a feeling we want to hold on to, but losing it is something else we need to hold on to so we don’t forget,” said Howard, one of several key underclassmen who will return.
“We lost a to a really good baseball team today. We did the things we’ve done all year. We created runs when there weren’t hits, and we found ways to compete when we didn’t get hits, and I just don’t want any of these guys to hang their head because there is nothing to hang it over,” Rorex added.
LV finished with just the three hits and struck out eight times on the game, but still managed to get four runs. University had seven hits with Blevins, Hart and Pollack getting two apiece.
UNIVERSITY HIGH 002 012 2 – 7 7 1
LOOKOUT VALLEY 003 001 0 – 4 3 1
Bembry and Sechorn; Phillips, Janeway (5), Howard (7) and Slavin.
(Contact James Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @beachnut1134)