Blount Press Row

Winning Horsepower

Mustangs rally from slow start to Blount County championship

Heritage Middle’s Jacob Powell delivers the pitch against Alcoa on Saturday. Photos by Keith Driver

By Stefan Cooper
Blount Press Row

For three straight games last week the Heritage Middle Mustangs got behind early, rallied, then tore back.

Mustang catcher ? checks out the baseball prior to the start of play.

Mustang catcher Hayden Gilliland checks out the baseball prior to an inning.

The last one, a 6-4 loss to Alcoa at the Blount County Middle School Baseball Tournament on Saturday, finished short of victory, Heritage turned back with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh.

No matter.

The Tornadoes were playing out of the loser’s bracket, put there by an 8-5 loss to the Mustangs three days prior. When rain late Saturday and much of Sunday washed out the field at Union Grove Middle, Heritage, the winner’s bracket champion, became the 2016 Blount County champions.

What a ride.

“Everything finally started to fall into place,” Mustang coach Jason Hammontree said.

The Mustangs put themselves in position to be crowned county champions with an 11-10 win over host Union Grove in Friday’s winner’s bracket finals. Heritage uncorked its second, late-inning comeback of the week to relegate the Wildcats to the knockout bracket opposite Alcoa.

Ethan Webb, Blake Hughes, Jackson Jett, Nathan Miceli and Garrett Porder got the Mustangs off at a sprint with five runs in a big second inning. Two more in the fourth and another in the sixth opened an 11-9 lead entering the Union Grove seventh.

On the hill, Blake Cooper fanned a pair of Wildcats for the final two outs in what proved the Blount County championships game.

Ethan Webb beats the throw to second.

Ethan Webb beats the throw to second.

In the matchup with the Tornadoes that came to mean so much, Alcoa led, 4-1, entering the Heritage sixth, but then starting slow and roaring to life is the way the Mustangs have done things all season.

Heritage dropped its first six before righting the ship at midseason.

“We knew if we got down we still had a lot of time to play,” Hammontree said. “We don’t hit the ball like Union Grove and Alcoa can. They have some big kids that can crush it.”

Six Tornadoes hit for better than .400 this season, paced by matching .604 averages from sluggers Ty Boyd and Nick Roberts. Mason Palonis and Grant Livesay put up hefty .500 and .480 averages, respectively.

“We try to keep a positive attitude and never give up and keep playing until the last inning,” Mustang right-hander Jacob Powell said.

The Mustangs exploded for seven runs in an eventful sixth, Alcoa getting one back in its half of the inning. Excepting the rough start, Powell had been solid through six innings. In the seventh, Hammontree gave the ball to Hughes to close it out.

As he’d do three days later against Union Grove, Hughes put it away with a strikeout of the game’s final batter.

“They were both really spectacular and fun to be a part of,” Powell said. “The first time we played (the Tornadoes, during the regular season), we were run ruled. It was nice to see how we’d improved since then.”

Alcoa's Nick Roberts reaches home plate after his first-inning grand slam.

Nick Roberts reaches home plate after his first-inning grand slam.

Alcoa stormed open a 4-0 lead to start Saturday’s rain-shortened championship round. Palonis, Riley Heaton and Boyd loaded the bases on consecutive singles in the opening half inning. A Roberts grand slam to left pushed the runs across.

Didn’t look good for the Mustangs, but, just as things seemed darkest, Powell settled in. His ability to go the distance not only gave Heritage time to get back in it. It saved every available arm for the doubleheader should the rally fail.

“That was huge,” Hammontree said. “We’re in trouble if he can’t do it.”

Hammontree and Alcoa coach Keith Stephens both expressed disappointment the rainout prevented a second game.

“We were strong enough and had the pitching to last,” Stephens said. “We started hitting the ball well again and finding out who needs to play where.”

Heritage found out a game earlier, and it proved the difference.

Heritage Middle School Mustangs
2016 Blount County Middle School Champions

Blake Cooper, Jacob Powell, Kameron Johnson, Luke Johnson, Nathan miceli, Nolan Cunningham, Evan Cantrell, Jacob Warwick, Spencer Williams, Micah Enfinger, Blake Hughes, Garret Porder, Ethan Webb, Hayden Gilliland, Jackson Jett