The tooth-and-nail battles of the district tournaments are done.
Five local teams now face the challenge of “do-or-die” region road games.
Walker Valley and Polk County both have teams that advanced to the baseball and softball region playoffs Monday, while Cleveland High’s soccer boys will take the pitch Tuesday evening.
Both the Mustangs and Blue Raiders head over the mountains to Cookeville to face the familiar Cavaliers, while the Lady Mustangs will motor over Monteagle to Coffee County.
Both Polk squads will be traveling down Interstate 75 to Chattanooga, with the Lady Wildcats stopping at East Hamilton, while the ’Cats venture on to Red Bank.
“We are very fortunate to still be playing,” commented coach Bill Triplett who shifted over from the Polk County baseball diamond to the softball dugout during the offseason.
“There are a lot of 20-win teams sitting home while we’re still playing,” he added. “The competition at this stage is tough. You have to be playing your best to survive this far.”
All the local survivors will be facing a season-ending scenario in the region openers, but a victory Monday or Tuesday secures at least two more games — the region championship and a berth in the TSSAA sectional round.
While all of the local coaches have expressed respect for their opening round opponents, all agree the key to victory lies in their respective teams being able to play up to their potential.
“While I know that Coffee County is a very good team and has dominated their district, I’m more concerned with our girls. If we play like we are capable of playing and leave it all out on the field, then we should be all right,” remarked coach Lauren Limburg, whose 25-10 Walker Valley softball squad is making its first region appearance since 2009.
“We’ve had a good season and I like the way we battled in the district tournament. The key for us is playing good, consistent ball,” added coach Joe Shamblin, who is leading his 24-11 Mustangs into their third straight region tournament.
“We played well in the district and forced a second championship game (against Ooltewah) Wednesday night, but then committed five errors in the final game,” he stated. “We’ve had good, solid defense all year and we’ll need that again Monday night.”
Cookeville, which had to make the same trip to Walker Valley last May, comes into the region opener with a 26-7 record and an impressive 11-1 victory over Warren County in a six-inning District 6-AAA championship game.
“Cookeville has had a good season and having to make the long trip up there will make things more difficult,” Shamblin expressed. “They have two good pitchers — a hard thrower with a good fastball and a guy with real good breaking stuff — and I’m not sure which one we’ll see yet.”
Whichever Cavalier hurler they face, Shamblin likes his team’s chances with ace Bobby Towne on the mound.
“Anytime we have Bobby on the mound we have a chance to win,” the Mustang coach praised. “He has a ‘bulldog’ mentality and keeps us in games.”
The senior right-hander is 8-1 on the season with a pair of saves as well.
After not giving up an earned run during the regular season, Towne suffered his only loss against Ooltewah in the district tournament but then bounced back two days later to end Bradley Central’s season with a three-hit, complete-game effort.
Towne has an 0.79 earned run average and has struck out 80 batters in 67 2/3 innings this season. He has walked just 19 and hit only four, while holding opposing hitters to a .143 batting average.
The versatile athlete plays second base, shortstop or center field when not on the mound, depending on who is pitching.
As the team’s leadoff hitter, Towne has a .493 on base percentage with 10 doubles and a triple in his 44 hits, plus he has been hit 17 times, driven in 21 runs and stolen 13 bases.
Senior third baseman Chris Caffrey leads the potent Mustang offense with a .422 batting average, plus is hitting .442 with runners in scoring position. With 21 walks, he has team-leading .524 OBP.
The Cleveland State signee had nine doubles, a pair of triples and a home run in his 43 hits, plus is tied for the team lead with 25 RBIs, along with Tennessee Wesleyan signee Logan Longwith.
Longwith is hitting at a .356 clip that improves to .404 with runners in scoring position. The shortstop/pitcher has a half dozen doubles in his 37 hits.
Senior center fielder Matthew Simmons leads the ’Stangs with 29 runs scored, plus has 10 doubles, a triple and a homer and 19 RBIs in his 38 hits.
The lefty is also 3-0 on the mound, including a four-hit shutout of Ooltewah in Wednesday’s first district title game.
Senior Jared Broome is 7-1 on the hill, plus is the team’s starting second baseman when not toeing the rubber.
Broome has posted a .437 OBP while batting in the No. 9 hole, plus he has scored 18 times.
“We have a good group of seniors that are ‘seasoned veterans’ when it comes to the postseason experience,” related Shamblin. “We’ve had to overcome some injuries and the loss of some key players that didn’t return, but this is a good group of kids who have battled hard all season long.”
Junior first baseman Caleb Longley has also provided some strong play with a .402 OBP, seven doubles and a triple in 30 hits, plus he has walked a team-leading 22 times, scored 21 runs and driven in 20.
Polk County (18-12) is making its fifth straight region baseball appearance, and a trip to Red Bank is a pleasant surprise.
The 17-20 Lions upset 30-win East Hamilton in the district tournament and then held off Chattanooga Central in the 6-AA title round, losing 11-7 but then bouncing back for a 14-7 win over the Purple Pounders.
Despite a pair of “run-rule” losses to 5-AA champ Sequoyah, Polk County edged Meigs County 12-11 to earn its spot in the next round.
The Wildcats have depended on the bats of players like Alex Akins, Collin Wimberley, Duncan Coffey, Justin Brown and others to remain alive in the hunt for a TSSAA state tournament bid.
On the softball diamond, the Lady Wildcats are 24-13, while East Hamilton is 22-14 and claimed the 6-AA crown over a surprise East Ridge team. The Lady Pioneers upset top-seeded Chattanooga Central, a team they had lost to three times by a combined 30-0 score, in the loser’s bracket final.
“It goes to show when it comes to the tournaments, you never know what’s going to happen,” commented coach Triplett.
“We started out with just 12 players, then two quit, but our 10 has stayed strong,” he said. “We lost to them (East Hamilton) 11-5 in the third or fourth week of the season, but I think we’re playing a lot better now.”
Walker Valley’s girls are coming off a tough district tournament that saw them have to fight through a pair of loser’s bracket games Tuesday to earn a spot in the finals.
“I’m proud of the way our girls fought back,” proclaimed coach Limburg. “These girls play together as a team. They play for one another.”
After getting knocked off by Ooltewah in the event’s second round, the Lady Mustangs fought back with three straight wins in the loser’s bracket, including the final one to eliminate the Lady Owls and claim the region berth.
After falling to defending state champion Soddy-Daisy in the title tilt, Walker Valley will take their 25-10 record to Manchester Monday to face District 6-AAA champ Coffee County.
“All I know about them is they dominated their district (8-0), but we haven’t seen them this year as any tournaments,” coach Limburg related.
The Lady Mustangs have been without senior Allie Morrow for the past two weeks after she fractured her wrist. “She has been in the dugout as a vocal leader cheering the team on,” Limburg remarked.
The team’s other two seniors, left fielder Morgan Elrod and center fielder Leslie Still, are providing strong leadership as well.
Two years removed from back-to-back state tournament appearances, the Cleveland High soccer squad has a tough row to hoe to try to get back to Murfreesboro this year.
After falling to second-ranked Ooltewah 4-0 in the District 5-AAA title match Thursday, the Blue Raiders must make the trip to 6-AAA champ Cookeville on Tuesday evening.
The Cavaliers are 14-4-1 on the season and blanked Coffee County 3-0 in the 6-AAA final.
Cleveland (8-10-1) also defeated the Red Raiders by a 5-1 tally during the Cleveland Invitational earlier in the season.