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TSSAA still hitting Spring Fling homer

Douglas Fritz • May 26, 2018 at 5:43 PM

In 1994, the TSSAA began the Spring Fling in Chattanooga, and it was a rousing success.

Twenty-five years later it’s stronger than ever.

Spring Fling XXV concluded Friday in Murfreesboro with high school state championships earned in baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and track.

Throughout the week, action was tense, crowds were good, and the level of competition was strong.

Throughout the years, the TSSAA has done a lot of good things for high school athletics. Yes, the organization has endured its share of missteps. But the Spring Fling remains as the crown jewel of the TSSAA.

It was a well-run, well-organized and well-officiated event. TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, assistant executive director Matthew Gillespie and many others deserve credit for another top-notch four-day scramble.

Different look

With the private schools mostly in Division II, the baseball, softball and soccer tournaments had a different look at the Class AA and Class A levels.

And it could change even further as a few more private schools are moving to Division II in the future.

The door is open for public schools, especially from Northeast Tennessee, to get to the state tournament as Elizabethton, Greeneville and University High did this year in baseball, and Unaka did in softball. This year may have marked the start of a good run for area teams.

Cyclones’ pride

A third-place finish in the state for a school that hadn’t tasted such a run in 60 years, shows how special this season was for Elizabethton baseball.

The Cyclones did it with a tough lineup, gritty pitching, consistent defense, aggressively smart baserunning, great attitudes, and one of the best coaching staffs in the entire state.

They started the season with a surprising doubleheader loss to Sullivan Central, but lost only two more games against Class AA teams the rest of the way until the state tournament.

Elizabethton might have been playing for the state title Friday if not for a tough 3-2 loss to Stewart County in the opening round.

“We really hurt ourselves in that opening round,” said Cyclones’ head coach Ryan Presnell. “We were able to recover (Wednesday), but (Thursday) was a tough road. I would like to see us play Riverside with a fresh slate, but that’s what they did that we didn’t do.”

Presnell said he challenged his team to get to the state tournament this year.

“We wanted to be down here for these games on these fields,” said Presnell. “There has been a dangerous precedent set for (next year’s) seniors. I’m not going to lie to you. We need to be down here again next year. Will we? Who knows? I do know we’re going to work for that. We got a taste of it. We know what’s down here. That’s what we’re going to start working on today.”

Going Greene

It was an incredibly impressive Spring Fling for Greeneville.

Pulling from just one pool of athletes for two sports playing at the same time, the 913-enrollment school pulled off a tough double by winning state titles in baseball and soccer.

Greeneville did the expected by winning its second straight soccer championship, whipping Loudon in the finals by a score of 3-0. Greeneville outscored its three state tournament opponents by a combined margin of 14-2 and finished with a record of 23-2-1.

It was baseball where the Greene Devils weren’t expected to rise to the top. They were whipped by Elizabethton 9-4 in the Region 1-AA final, but went on the road and earned a late-inning-come-from-behind 4-2 win over Pigeon Forge in the sectional.

Once they got into the state tournament, everything came together — including a dramatic walk-off three-run homer by Jacques Gillespie-Taylor in the bottom of the seventh inning Thursday that gave the Greene Devils a 7-5 win and a spot in Friday’s championship.

In the title game, Greeneville put down a mercy-rule 11-0 beating on Riverside.

It was a case of perseverance as the 2016 and 2017 Greeneville teams were given more consideration as state title threats, but the 2018 squad earned the hardware.

Combined with Class 4A football, the Greene Devils earned three boys state championships in the 2017-18 school year.

And Greeneville became Title Town in Tennessee.

Pitch count

The TSSAA pitch count has dramatically altered the state tournament. Had it been in place throughout the new century, a few state championships might have gone to other schools.

Some coaches have always done a good job protecting their pitchers, but others tended to get caught up in the desire to win — especially at the state tournament. The pitch-count rule is not perfect and can still be abused, but one thing it is doing is forcing teams to develop more pitching depth. That’s a good thing for every athlete who pitches.

No longer can teams rely on one kid to win a state title. Even two is not enough. And as Decatur County Riverside found out, it can take four reliable arms unless the bats are really ringing.

One of the best things about the pitch-count rule is teamwork. Baseball is a team sport, so relying on one big arm isn’t a great way of promoting the team aspect. And it doesn’t take a high-mph fastball to be successful on the mound. Throw strikes, change speeds, pitch to spots, and just about any kid can be successful.

It’s not inconceivable for a team with a good lineup and five pretty good pitchers to run through the state tournament without an ace.

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