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Longhorns break records and make history

What started off as a largely average season for the Johnson County Longhorns quickly turned into one of the biggest and most historic showings that the baseball program has ever seen. The rise to stardom began with a very close victory over the top ranked Unicoi County Blue Devils in one of the team’s last conference games. Overjoyed at beating one of their biggest rivals for only the second time in school history, the Longhorns then went on to make even bigger waves, turning over wins against some of the toughest teams in the area.
Sullivan Central, Sullivan East, Elizabethton, and even Unicoi for a second time all fell to Johnson County’s sheer determination, and though many of the wins were very narrow, the Longhorns continued to press on through the end of the regular season all the way to the district championships, a feat which very few Johnson County teams have ever pulled off. Even though the final showdown with Unicoi resulted in the team’s only losses in the tournament, the Longhorns struggled on thankful for the chance to go to the regionals for the first time since 1993. According to Coach Pete Pavusek, “We played good baseball, we just didn’t hit the way I thought we should have hit in the last two games of the district tournament, but we made up for it.”
Standing at a precipice that no other JCHS team had ever surpassed, the Longhorns prepared themselves to take on the Greeneville High School Green Devils, the highest ranking team in their district. Using junior pitcher Ryan Mahala who had helped see the Longhorns through several tough games in the season, Johnson County put up one of the best performances they had ever played in such a high pressure game.
Starting off a little rough with an early Green Devil run, the Longhorns bounced back in the second inning with two of their own and three more during the fifth, while the defense kept Greenville away from home plate for the remainder of the game. “Mahala was huge,” said Pavusek. “He scuffled a little bit last outing, but I think he refocused. We kind of kept him loose. We didn’t talk a whole lot about what he was going to do and we just gave him the ball. That was a game time decision. I asked him how he felt, he said, ‘I feel good,’ so I said, ‘Lets go.’ He did what he’s been doing all season. We were hitting when we needed to, we had that one big inning where we had a couple of two out hits. That really kind of broke it open and gave Mahala some breathing room.”
That amazing 5-1 win not only made Longhorn history but also paved the way to the regional championship and a chance to go on and play in the sub-state. Unfortunately the victory also meant a rematch against the Unicoi County Blue Devils on their own field. Making matters even worse, Unicoi was allowed to progress unchallenged after South Greene and Chucky Doak who were to play against one another to determine the number two seed in their district ran into controversy over the use of an illegal player. This meant that the Blue Devils were given several days rest while the Longhorns were forced to play back-to-back.
When asked about the situation, Coach Pavusek replied, “It’s tough for us. We roll in midnight after a big emotional game with Greeneville, the number one seed for their district, and then have to turn around and play Unicoi County the next night when they are rested and their arms fresh. It’s just tough. It puts our kids up against the wall and you’re having to swing and try to fight your way out of. It’s just one of those things. It didn’t go our way.”
Undaunted, the Longhorns put up a valiant fight, gaining an early one run lead in the second inning. However, Johnson County was unable to prevent a devastating turn of events in the third and fourth innings that blasted Unicoi ahead by ten runs. Even then Johnson County gave their best efforts to fight back, at one point loading the bases, but to no avail. A single run in the fifth that allowed the game to continue was all that the Longhorns could muster in the remaining innings.
“Baseball is very humbling,” said Pavusek. “You can be on top of the world one night and beat a great ball team in Greeneville and the next night you’re at the bottom of the barrel. It’s all about how you respond, how you come back. A regional championship is not going to be a two-to-one ball game. We had to respond and keep chipping away but we just couldn’t do it. We couldn’t get a big hit.”
Regardless of the loss, the team still progressed one more round, travelling to take on the Christian Academy of Knoxville Warriors. Arriving just in time for a summer rainstorm, both teams were forced to wait for the weather to break. Anxious to get started after being delayed for more than an hour, fans were relieved as the sky lightened and the game finally began on the wet and foggy field.
Johnson County took the initiative yet again, putting up an initial run in the first inning. CAK caught back up with a run of their own, but for the next two innings the Longhorn defense was able to keep them from advancing. Yet, in a repeat of the earlier Unicoi game, Johnson County started slipping behind in the fourth, first with a three run pick up by Knoxville, followed by gains in the fifth and sixth as well. By the end of the night, the score came down to a disappointing 1-10 loss.
Yet, despite ending on a down note, Coach Pavusek seemed very proud of what the Longhorns have accomplished this season. “I think we were running a little thin there at the end. We’ve had a lot of ball games, very emotional games, eight-inning games, one-run games; it takes a toll on you after a while. But you always want one more. You get to the point where it’s just one more game, one more game. Well, we beat North, well, one more game. We beat Elizabethton, well, one more game. Just give me one more game, and they did. They took us all the way up to the game that determines who goes to the state tournament. We came up a little short but the juniors should want to pick up where we left off next year. We’ll just see how it goes and cross that bridge when we get there.”
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.