The luck of the draw seems to have benefitted Walker Valley in its first TSSAA State Baseball Tournament, but coach Joe Shamblin is quick to point out there are no easy teams when it comes to this level of play.
“Yes, we got a good draw, but the reality is, only eight (AAA) teams in the state are still playing. They are all strong teams,” commented Shamblin, who played in a TSSAA state tournament for the 1990 Charleston High School team, plus took a pair of Charger teams to the Spring Fling during his five years as head coach at McMinn Central prior to coming to WVHS.
With five teams ranked in the final Tennessee Baseball Coaches Association’s AAA poll, four will battle in the top of the bracket, while Walker Valley will open against the other — No. 7 Germantown.
The Mustangs (27-11) and Red Devils (28-13) will clash in tonight’s second game at Oakland High School in Murfreesboro, with the first pitch set for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 5 p.m. game between Franklin (26-10) and Bearden (27-12).
“All four teams on our end of the bracket are pretty similar,” proclaimed Shamblin. “It should make for some good competition.”
On the other end of the bracket at Siegel High School this evening, fifth-ranked Arlington (29-11) will battle No. 9 Riverdale (30-10) in the opener, before No. 2 Mt. Juliet (38-4) squares off against defending champion Farragut (38-4), ranked third in the final poll.
Regardless of tonight’s results all teams will return to the diamonds Wednesday with elimination games slated for 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., while Tuesday’s winners will tangle in the afternoon.
The field will be down to four teams by Thursday’s 4 p.m. games, with the state title tilt slated for 6 p.m. Friday at Middle Tennessee State University’s Reece Smith Jr. Field.
After making it to the TSSAA sectional playoffs seven of the school’s first 11 years, Walker Valley comes into its first state tournament having won 21 of its last 26 games, including a clean sweep of the Region 3-AAA Tournament, plus an exciting 1-0, eight-inning victory over sixth-ranked Tullahoma in the substate.
“We’re playing good baseball right now,” assessed Shamblin. “After winning the regular season (District 5-AAA) title, we were a little disappointed about finishing second in the district tournament. The guys bounced back and did what we needed to do to reach our goal of the state tournament.”
With eight seniors and five returning starters from last season’s 22-14 team that fell just one game short of a state tournament bid, Walker Valley had high hopes coming into this season.
“We lost seven seniors off last year’s team, but we knew we had a good core group coming back,” expressed Shamblin. “We have talked a lot the last two seasons about leaving a legacy that future teams can build on. These guys have done just that.”
Two seasons ago the Mustangs made the region tournament for the first since Shamblin took over after the retirement of longtime Charleston and Walker Valley coach Mike Turner in 2006. Last year the Mustangs returned to the sectional playoffs and this week’s state tournament marks the first for a northern Bradley County team since 2000 and 2001.
The current Walker Valley squad features returning starters all around the infield.
Cleveland State signee Chris Caffrey anchors the hot corner and leads the Mustang offense with a .417 batting average, including 10 doubles, two triples and a home run in his 45 hits. He is also tops on the team with a .507 on base percentage, has struck out just seven times this season, plus he has driven in 28 runs and scored 21 times.
Senior shortstop Logan Longwith, who has signed with NAIA World Series participant Tennessee Wesleyan College, tops the team with 29 RBIs, plus he has a .438 OBP and eight doubles in his 41 hits. The lanky right-hander is 5-3 while toeing the rubber with 42 strikeouts and a 1.91 earned run average in 33 innings of work.
Senior Jared Broome is the second sacker and although he bats ninth in the Mustang order, he has proven to be very stubborn out with a .427 OBP and has matched Longwith with 22 runs scored. He has also done well on the mound, posting a 7-1 record with the lone loss coming in the District 5-AAA championship game against Ooltewah. He issued just 10 walks in 44 innings on the bump.
Batting cleanup, junior Caleb Longley is in his second season as the starting first baseman and currently has a .400 OBP with eight doubles and a triple in 31 hits. He has driven in 21 runs, scored 24 times and leads the team with 24 walks.
Versatile senior Bobby Towne has been the ace of the pitching staff with an 9-1 record and an 0.89 ERA, plus played strong defensively at shortstop, second base and center field, when not on the hill. He has eight complete games, including a half dozen shutouts, plus he had struck out 87 batters in 70 2/3 innings of work. He also has two of the team’s five saves this season.
As the Mustang leadoff batter, Towne has a .486 OBP, with a .385 BA. The Cleveland State signee is tied with Caffrey and senior Matt Simmons for the team lead with 10 doubles and is tops with 13 stolen bases. He has been “beaned” an astronomical 18 times this season. Towne has also scored 28 times and driven in 22 runs.
Simmons also has a .400-plus OBP with a triple and home run as part of his 41 hits. Batting second in the order, the left-handed swinger leads the team with 29 runs scored and has plated 21 teammates.
The southpaw is also 4-0 while toeing the rubber, including a pair of impressive postseason performances adding to his current string of 17 straight scoreless innings. He has a 1.19 ERA, with 49 Ks and just 16 free passes in 41 1/3 innings.
Walker Valley has also gotten some strong play from junior catcher Jake Poole (.416 OBP, eight doubles,) designated hitter Jake Ward (.402 OBP, five doubles, 18 RBIs, two saves) and sophomore outfielder Bradley Smith (.363 OBP, five doubles, 14 RBIs).
“We have a lot of good players, who know their roles on the team,” praised Shamblin. “We may not have any superstars or D-I signees, but we have a well-rounded team with good pitching and good hitting. They pick each other up. We have guys who can hit up and down the line up.”
“What coach (Dustin) McPherson has been able to get out of our pitchers this season has been amazing,” Shamblin proclaimed. “They throw strikes and keep us in games. That’s all we can ask of them.”
Making their first state tournament appearance since 2001, Germantown was a perennial state competitor under legendary coach Phil Clark, but are now under the tutelage of first-year coach Casey Callaway.
The Red Devils scored three runs in the top of the seventh inning Saturday to earn their spot at the Spring Fling with an 8-5 win over Hardin County.
Winning just two of their last five games, Germantown won the most important ones — the region opener and the sectional.
After starting the season 11-3, the Red Devils went through a 7-7 stretch in the middle of the year. Germantown did win a streak of nine straight, including the final seven of the regular season and the opening two contests of the District 15-AAA Tournament.
Of the eight teams in the state tournament field, only half won their respective district titles, plus three came in second in the region before winning sectional contests on the road.