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Longhorns' JV team has slow start but picks up steam

With the varsity team losing a huge group of talented senior players last season, it was no secret that this year JCHS baseball would be rebuilding their program. Many of the youngest players like freshman Nicholas Whitener were forced to step up to the plate and take an important role from day one. For that reason, this year more than any the Junior Varsity team has been essential to the overall success of Johnson County’s program. With 21 games to their credit, it was also one of the longest and most intense JV seasons in the high school’s history, and as head JV Coach Nicholas Perkins pointed out the team performed very well in the long run.
“We had a very rough 0-6 start but we won eight and lost seven the rest of the way,” Perkins said. “We did show improvement as we went along and got better. That’s what you want to do as a ball club, continue to improve as the season goes along.”
Although the final record was actually less than perfect compared to past years, the final picture was heavily skewed by a string of early season losses that overshadowed huge later wins. A part of the big shift came with the weather and a lack of ability to actually get out on the field in February and March when the team would have normally been working on some fundamental baseball.  “We never want to use excuses but we had a lot of renovations on our field this year and with the snow and saturation early in the season,” said Perkins. “We just didn’t have a lot of time on the field. March 10th was our opening day but if we had it our way we would have pushed the season back. We probably weren’t ready as a program to start playing high school baseball, but we did get better as we went along. It was a lack of quality practice, reps. We did things indoors but there’s no substitute for reps on the field.”
Making things worse, this season saw incoming players who had little to no experience with the sport. Some players had not only missed out playing for the Middle School but didn’t even have a good foundation from Little League. Because of that, Perkins and the coaching staff had to take much of the early season and focus on teaching the very basic principals of the game. With these handicaps in mind, the team’s turn around by the end of the season was truly amazing. “We did have some exciting wins,” Perkins said. “We had a couple wins against Unicoi’s JV program, a nice win at David Crockett, a nice win against Elizabethton, and a nice win against Happy Valley. Our wins came against some formidable JV opponents so there were some highlights.”
According to Perkins the key to many of the Longhorns’ late victories this season was in being able to develop and utilize crucial plays and use them at the right times. “We implemented a new motion offense this year,” Perkins said.  “We were putting guys in motion a lot, stealing bases, bunting for hits. Just really tried to play an aggressive exciting brand of baseball on offense, and I think our players really enjoyed that style of baseball. With the way the new bats are and various things I just think you want to put pressure on the defense, keep the opposing defense and opposing coaching staff guessing a little bit. We don’t have the type of ball club where you can just sit back and wait for them to hit a double or a home run. We had to create and manufacture a lot of offense.”
Possibly the best example of these new tactics came in a huge win over the David Crockett Pioneers who had just gone toe to toe the night before against Dobyns-Bennett. “Here comes the Johnson County Longhorns from Mountain City and just played really good baseball,” Perkins said about the win. “We really had them frustrated with our offense. It was just had a nice win. That was the highlight of the season. I think as far as pitching, timely hitting, base running, executing plays, the whole package, our win at David Crockett was probably the most satisfying. Logan Sargent who really was called up to Varsity as a sophomore, pitched amazing that day. His varsity innings really gave him confidence that day to pitch a great JV game even if it was against a triple A school.”
Sargent wasn’t the only crucial force in that game. Players like Jake Bower, Payton Fenner, Samuel Icenhour, Bailey Epperly, and Adam Worley all had a hand in the win each utilizing their own strengths while at the same time highlighting just how much the team had come together as a unit. Fenner proved to be one of the Longhorns best offensive players of the season, finishing up with a .444 batting average overall and getting on base 52 percent of the time. Others like Nicholas Whitener came in and started to develop well for the pitching staff, while even more novice players like Epperly were able to grow in confidence and fill key positions like catcher.
“Some of our guys had a great year, and again it was a learning year, a year we saw a lot of improvement, but ultimately JV is about player development, guys getting better,” said Perkins. “Baily Epperly stepped in this year and was willing to try the catcher position when we converted Samuel Icenhour to the outfield. Jake Bower moved from the outfield to play some first base for us. We had guys who played new positions, who played various positions, and again that’s all a part of the learning experience for them.”
In the end it was a very successful season for the JV, and very exciting for the fans who were often more energized than that had been even at the varsity games. A sort of proving ground for their eventual run on the varsity team, Johnson County’s JV program continues to grow and develop as an essential part of the big picture that continues to make baseball a successful sport in Johnson County.