Hilltoppers to honor 1998 state baseball champions

Douglas Fritz • Updated Apr 19, 2018 at 5:29 PM

Bernie Young was at Happy Valley prior to the 1998 high school baseball season, looking forward to coaching what he believed was one of the best teams in school history.

As it turned out, Young would indeed coach one of the best teams in school history — at Science Hill.

Young was hired as an assistant for the Hilltoppers, but he took over as head coach when Bob Dempsey resigned. Science Hill went on to win its first state baseball championship in 35 years.

The school will honor the members and coaches of that team during a ceremony at TVA Credit Union Ballpark on Saturday at approximately 11:45 a.m., prior to Science Hill’s game with Knox Karns.

Young said he didn’t know what he was stepping into with the Hilltoppers.

“I was leaving one of the best teams I’d ever had at Happy Valley,” said Young. “When I first got to Science Hill, honestly I thought the team I left was better than the one I inherited, but they proved me wrong. I had no inclination they would be that good.”

Science Hill didn’t have it easy, though. The Hilltoppers were in one of the best baseball conferences in the state at that time.

“Back in those days, every night you played a conference game you faced quality pitching,” said Young. “They were so good at Dobyns-Bennett and Sullivan South. Everywhere you went, every game was tough.”

Young said the big picture didn’t come into focus until Science Hill defeated South in the regional final.

“I knew we had a chance when we beat South,” said Young. “We didn’t even win the district, but we beat them in the region.”

In those days, the region final was an elimination game. The Hilltoppers traveled to Knox Farragut and earned their berth in the state’s final four with a victory over the Admirals.

But something tougher than Farragut at that time stood in the way: nationally ranked Germantown. The Red Devils were 34-2 and ranked No. 6 by USA Today. They had not lost to a Tennessee team all season and had ace Adam Larson on the mound against the Hilltoppers in the winners’ bracket final. Larson would go on to become a closer at Mississippi State, and he still ranks No. 6 on the school’s all-time saves list despite transferring to Middle Tennessee State University for his senior year.

Richard Markland greeted Larson with a three-run first-inning double. The game was suspended in the bottom of the second inning because of rain and resumed the next day.

By the end of the third inning, Science Hill led, 7-1. Pitcher Blake Kaylor held Germantown to just two hits in a complete-game performance in the 7-3 win.

“What a game he pitched,” said Young. “What he did was magnificent.

“Our guys were unbelievable. They weren’t cocky. They were just really confident in themselves. The way they were playing, teams had to play almost a perfect game to beat us because we made plays, made pitches and got timely hitting. Everything came together for us.”

Germantown wasn’t done, however. The Red Devils came out of the losers’ bracket to reach the championship round. They boasted Ben Johnson, who went on to play three seasons in the majors. He hit seven career homers in 253 at-bats with the San Diego Padres and New York Mets.

Ironically, both Johnson and Larson started their professional careers in the Appalachian League: Johnson with Johnson City and Larson with Bristol. Larson didn’t make it to the big leagues, getting to Triple-A with the Charlotte Knights in 2004.

“I would never let my team know at the time, but (the Red Devils) were a great team,” said Young. “I remember looking at their roster and talking to people, and to be quite honest they looked almost unbeatable. For us to do it twice was an amazing thing. Did I think we could beat them? Probably not. But I had 19 players who thought they could, and that was the difference.”

When it got to the championship game, Young’s feelings about playing Germantown had changed.

“Looking back on it, I didn’t even think about it,” said Young. “We were going to win it. There was no second guessing. Once we got to that point, we didn’t even think about losing.”

Young had been able to pull ace Brandon Crowe after five innings in the opening-round win over Warren County because of holding a 10-1 lead. So Crowe came back against Germantown on two-day’s rest.

“I had Brandon Crowe coming back,” said Young. “Let’s get real. We had all of the momentum, and we’ve got Crowe coming back. Wow.”

Pitch counts weren’t kept by the TSSAA in 1998, but Crowe would have been borderline to pitch against Germantown if current rules were in place. He would have needed to throw 75 pitches or less against Warren County in order to pitch on two day’s rest. Of course with a 10-1 lead, Young might not have used Crowe in the fifth inning against Warren County in order to save him for possible work on Saturday.

While Crowe was shutting Germantown out for six innings, his teammates scored five runs in the first inning and eventually built an 8-0 lead. John Patterson got it started with an RBI single, and Nick Crowe followed with a two-run single. Markland capped the first inning off with a two-run single. Later in the game, Brian Miller and Mike Rader each had RBI hits.

The Red Devils rallied for three runs in the seventh inning, but the deficit was too big and Science Hill earned an 8-3 victory.

Young said he still thinks about the special season to this day.

“There’s probably not a day goes by I don’t think about it in some way, shape or form,” said Young. “Was it a crowning moment in my career? Probably. It was just the way those kids responded during the district, region and state tournaments. I think about the kids and how great they were and how they conducted themselves and handled themselves in the classroom and on the field. It was really a special time.”

Young added he hopes there’s another special team at Science Hill.

“I would challenge them this year,” said Young. “I’ve still got a letter from Steve Spurrier hanging in my office where he challenged us to go back to back like the 1962-63 Science Hill teams. Science Hill is off to a great start this year, and I keep up with them a lot. It has been 20 years, and it’s time. They’ve got a great team and a great coaching staff. I challenge them and wish them luck to do it again.”

Young said he’s really looking forward to seeing his old players again.

“You go on with your life and do your thing,” said Young. “They go to college, get married, and some of them have moved away. But I’m really looking forward to seeing them. It was a special group of young men that I will never forget.”

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