By Gene Renfro
MILLIGAN COLLEGE — The restless Johnson County baseball team is going back to the regional round of the tournaments for the first time since 1990.
The Longhorns, the event’s No. 4 seed, upended perennial favorite Unicoi County by a 2-1 account Sunday to not only reach the District 1-AA championship game, but next week will be in the Region 1-AA event. In comparison to Johnson County first region bid in the current players’ lifetime, the Blue Devils have played in the last seven Region 1-AA tournaments thanks to five District 1-AA championships in that span.
“They are history-makers,” Johnson County head coach Pete Pavusek said of his players. “This bunch doesn’t fuss or anything. They like each other. It’s a good chemistry at the right time.”
Johnson County was able to take the lead for a second time Sunday when Judd Hammons singled with two outs in the eighth inning. River Cazire, who had walked, raced in for the score.
“I was seeing a lot of fastballs,” Hammons said. “I got kind of nervous, but I live for those moments. I wish I had a lot more of them. I just wanted to get a win for the pitcher.”
For Hammons and Cazire, those were the only two times in the game that they reached base.
The Blue Devils, the Three Rivers Conference runner up, would not go down quietly though. A two-out double by Ryan Lingerfelt in the bottom half of the frame put the tying run on base, but a strikeout of Austin Green brought the game to a close.
Johnson County will have some time to rest after playing three games in as many days. The Longhorns will play the winner of the Unicoi County and Elizabethton losers’ bracket final that will be played today. The championship game is scheduled for Wednesday with the if-necessary game to follow the next day.
The Longhorns ran Harley Reece out to the mound after he threw an eight-inning complete game Friday. He was able to follow that victory with another 5 1/3 innings with five hits, an earned run, with a walk and three strikeouts on Sunday.
“He texted me at 7 a.m. and said, ‘Coach, I’m ready.’ When a kid tells you that, you’ve got to give him the ball,” Pavusek said about the starter.
Pavusek’s call to the bullpen was to Saturday’s complete-game winner, Ryan Mahala. He was credited with the victory in 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. He gave up two hits and struck out half of the 10 Blue Devils he faced.
“We knew Ryan felt pretty good, and his pitch count was low (Saturday). We really didn’t want him to throw more than an inning, but he’s a bulldog,” Pavusek said.
The Longhorns grabbed the lead when Ryan Smith singled to right and Mahala scored in the second inning. Mahala, the designated hitter at the time, was on with a single and a sacrifice bunt moved him up a base.
Unicoi County was able to tie things up in the home half of the sixth. Green helped himself with a RBI single through to right. Courtesy runner Michael Klernan touched home, running for Timmy Graham who started the inning off with a single
Graham and Green both went 2-for-4.
When it came to the work on the mound, Green threw all eight innings with just two runs on four hits. He struck out seven as well.
A day earlier, on Saturday, Happy Valley’s season came to an end at the hands of Sullivan North.
The Warriors were beat by a 10-2 score.
Chance Street had two of Happy Valley’s six hits. Correy Garland and Justin Reagan each had RBIs while Camen Wilder and Sam Allie were the run scorers.
Garland also threw two innings of relief with three hits that led to an unearned run. Hunter Townsend started and went two innings himself. He was tagged for five runs, two earned, on six hits.
“What’s positive is that we had three freshmen throwing in our elimination game,” Happy Valley head coach Caleb Moore said. “So the future looks bright, they competed. We just have to do the little things better next year, field the ball and hit the ball a little bit.”
Sullivan North then played Sunday, but lost 8-7 against Sullivan East.
Johnson Co. 010 000 01 — 2 4 0
Unicoi Co. 000 001 00 — 1 7 1
Reece, Mahala(6) and Smith. Green and Graham. W—Mahala. L—Green.