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Longhorns making progress despite three more losses

The JCHS baseball team continues to struggle, seeking out an elusive conference win that has proven to be unexpectedly difficult to secure. With two weeks of consecutive losses, both players and the coaching staff are scrambling to regain composure after a rough start to the season has continued to spiral.
According to assistant coach Nicholas Perkins, “I feel like you have to get that first conference win to feel good about yourself, to build a little confidence, and then you can start talking about ‘now were ready to play baseball’, ‘now were ready to compete a little bit’. It’s hard to look too far ahead to success when you’ve not won that first conference game. I do feel like we need that first win to take a deep breath and exhale a little bit.”
Despite a couple close runs, last week did not see the end of the recent dry spell. Playing two home games against Happy Valley and Unicoi, before traveling to Sullivan East Thursday, the Longhorns have been making progress despite a lack of final results. The Happy Valley game was actually very close, with both teams landing a steady stream of hits despite a high number of strikeouts on both sides.
Senior Ryan Mahala pitched most of the game putting up 129 throws with 10 strikeouts. Even this wasn’t enough to keep the Warriors completely off base, and by the end of fifth inning Happy Valley had managed to put through six runners. Three of those came back to back at the beginning of the fifth starting with a tough defensive error by the Longhorns.
Johnson County wasn’t quite as successful early on, but did manage to push senior Ryan Smith home off a double into center field. Freshman Payton Fenner was able to reach second, but a strikeout against Junior Blade Hampton ended the inning before more progress could be made. Hampton redeemed himself late in the game, taking advantage of a double by Judd Hammons and earning his team a vital run in the 7th that brought them one step closer to a win.
By that late stage in the game, the score was 7-3 in favor of Happy Valley, and with only one chance left at bat; things did not look good for Johnson County. Andy Woods led off with a long double into center field and was advanced by a walk on Blade Hampton. River Cazire was next up to bat, making contact into center field, but failing to take base after a solid catch from Happy Valley. Now with one out, Judd Hammons stepped up to the plate and landed a huge double that gave him two RBIs on Woods and Hampton.
Hammons made it all the way to third when a strikeout against Jacob Henson gave the Longhorns their second out. The bases loaded up one last time with two back to back walks giving Daniel Helm second and Sam Thomas first. With three runners on and three runs away from the lead, the pressure was naturally high when Ryan Smith stepped up to swing. Landing the bat solidly against the ball, Longhorn fans held their breath as it shot into right field, only to be disappointed by a swift catch at second base that ended the game 8-5.
That tough loss rolled right into an even bigger challenge against the Unicoi County Blue Devils Tuesday night. Like their previous couple of matchups, Unicoi dominated the field from the very first inning. Pitching was split between seniors Jacob Henson and Jon Vannoy with freshman Alex Tressler coming in at the very end. Henson threw out a strong game with five strikeouts in 57 total strikes, but a combination of errors on the field and consistent contact by the Blue Devils quickly put the Longhorns in a tight spot.
Unicoi started light, making just one run in the first off a walk advanced on an error, but then picked up steam with three runs in the second. The Longhorns were able to keep up at this early stage, doing surprisingly well in the second inning with runs for Ryan Mahala, Payton Fenner, Ryan Smith, and Blade Hampton. The only other push came from a single run in the third by Daniel Helm, who took advantage of a mistake at second base. From that point, Johnson County’s hard early hitting simply cut off, leaving far more standing strikeouts than actual hits.
“There have been so many watched third strikes,” said shortstop Judd Hammons.  “We should just swing the bat. You can’t get runs if you don’t swing the bat. We got so far last year and people expect so much out of us. There’s just way too much pressure. Last year we were just having fun and playing but this year were so worried about messing up that we do mess up. But, I think we’ll turn it around hopefully. Fellow senior River Cazire also seemed to attribute the sour turn to the team’s high expectations. “We’re playing safe and sorry,” Cazire said.  “We got it handed to us. Last year we were the underdogs. Last year there was no pressure on us. We’ve just got to get back into the rhythm of it.”
Regardless both players also commented on Jacob Henson’s solid start from the mound, recognizing the fact that he was battling possibly the best team in the conference.  According to Hammons, “Jacob was pitching well, but he came out in the fourth. It was a 3-0 count and he gave up a homerun and then in that same inning another homerun. It just went downhill from there. We just have no hitting at all. We can’t rely on Ryan Mahala for every single game like we did last year. We have to have more pitching and more people are going to have to step up and help us out. I thought Jacob was locating pretty good, but they were just hitting it every time.  Some of us are young and inexperienced but that’s no excuse really. We practice everyday, so we should be able to field the ball and back up our pitchers.”
Landing two homers in the fourth inning, Unicoi ultimately sealed their win, gaining nine more runs before finally being shut down. Even then the Blue Devils were able to make one more in the sixth and three in the seventh to bring the final score to 17-5.
Hoping to shake their bad luck, Johnson County made an extremely strong effort in the third game of the week, traveling to Bluff City to take on third ranked Sullivan East. Senior Andy Woods took the mound this time around; doing an amazing job that left the Patriots floundering for a hit most of the game. “Andy Woods pitched the best baseball he has pitched since the 2012 district tournament,” said Coach Perkins.  “He had a nice curve ball, was locating and keeping it down, and allowed us to sneak some fastballs in as well. Woods pitched well enough to win the baseball game.”

 A lack of hitting once again stole what could have been a momentum changing victory. After coming up short in three fast consecutive innings, the Patriots finally found the hole they needed to get some leeway in the fourth inning. Working nearly to a full count, East’s batter landed a huge homerun and took the first score of the night. Seizing a critical error on the field, the Patriots then pushed through a second runner, but were cut short before too much damage could be done.

Another double in the fifth gave East the chance to get a third run, and a walk in the sixth ended up providing a fourth and final trip to home. Yet, with the exception of these four advances, the Longhorns were largely successful in keeping the Patriots at bay. The only issue was that there simply was no real success at bat.

“We’re not hitting the ball well,” said Coach Perkins.  “When you’re not playing well on the offense then you’ve got to play good defense behind your pitcher. A few missed cues in the field gave them a few runs and really that could have been a 1-1 extra inning ball game. That game could have continued. Andy Woods pitched really well but we’re continuing to not score runs. Woods would have had to have thrown a shutout to win the game, but he did really well and I’m very happy for him.”

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