Tom Matson has taken care of ball fields while working for the Johnson City Parks and Rec for decades and managed Little League teams for 19 years, and this year his University Dental team mowed down opponents while producing his first championship.
The Johnson City National Little League title was well worth the wait.
University Dental went 22-2 for Matson, who began as manager of Gordon’s Furniture Little Yankees in 1994, and later coached Thomasville and Oakwood Homes. The dry spell nearly ended the previous two years, as University Dental’s 17-7 records were within a game of forcing a playoff.
“It felt really good to finally win it after so many years,” Matson said.
University Dental outscored opponents 267-42 this season. Matson said his team lost 2-0 on opening day to Bolton Block’s Ian Weir and lost 2-1 to Harman Ice hard-throwing left-hander Isiah Elrod.
A Parks and Rec Wall of Famer, Matson has coached youth basketball teams since 1984, and coached such players as former state champion Science Hill Hilltoppers as Brad Fields, Wayne Carroll and Freddie Fair. He also coached East Tennessee State women’s basketball coach Karen Kemp’s children, LaKeisha and Marcus, in Little League Baseball, and Kemp even assisted him for a season.
Matson began in Little League in 1991, assisting National League legend Henry Joy, who was better known as Mister Joy in a league where Joy’s son – also named Henry – coached in the league for decades, too.
“Mister Joy was a good man,” Matson said. “He would be one (who was a big influence).”
Matson proceeded to reel off names of former and current managers – Harold “Doc” Whitmore, “Young” Henry Joy, Charlie Campbell, Fred Willingham, Gary Tinn, Marvin Harris, Randall Riddle.
“All of those guys had something to do with me sticking around as long as I have,” Matson said. “Marvin Harris was my assistant when he first got in the league. Marvin has done a fantastic job as a Little League manager.”
Matson has coached such players as Jon Edmonds, who played in college, current Science Hill football player Malik McGue and rising Kentucky freshman pitcher Matthew Pope, who was drafted in the 38th round out of Science Hill by the Pittsburgh Pirates earlier this month.
“Matthew was my key starter,” Matson said. “I don’t know how hard he threw. I just know he could bring it.”
This year’s pitching staff was anchored by Brent Cardwell, who piled up the strikeouts. His step-brother, Austin Cox, batted cleanup also was a primary contributor on the mound.
Other pitchers helping University Dental dominate were hard-throwing Nakiya Smith and Cameron Bugher. All four are 12-year-olds, as are key cogs Zack Clark and Devan Edwards.
Cox led the league in home runs. Johnson City National president Charlie Campbell said the 27 home runs University Dental hit this season was a considerable feat. So is Matson’s lifetime of devotion.
Matson grew up at ballparks, and recalled his father returning to the softball field as quickly as possible after having surgery when he was hit in the face with a line-drive while pitching for TPI.
“I was his batboy,” the quiet Matson said in a tone that suggested the pride of being a 10-year-old in a dugout with your father.
Matson has been a father figure for many.
“I think everybody was tickled to see Tommy win the league,” Campbell said. “He deserved it. His is our sentimental favorite. Tommy’s just a really good guy who cares about kids.”
Assistant coach Mike Cardwell echoed Campbell’s sentiment.
“Tom works hard,” Cardwell said. “He’s the main one who takes care of those fields, makes sure the lights are turned off and everything. When Tom’s not at work, I’d say he spends 80 percent of his time working (with the youth teams and leagues) and the other 20 percent home sleeping. He’s just one of those people that give their time to others.
“That’s why it meant so much to me to see him win the league. He’s put so much time into it.”
University Dental players include brothers Blake and Colin Blevins, their cousin, Tyler Hyatt, Dominic Pickle, Eleazar Mirajes and Aspen Oliver.
“This team is very special to me,” said Matson, who found it excruciating to reveal which players hadn’t made the All-Star team. “I said ‘Guys, you’re all All-Stars because you won the league championship.”
University Dental lost 3-2 in a seven-inning heartbreaker to McLeod in the city tournament championship game on Saturday. Edwards hit a home run. The three-win run to the title game included a long home run by Cox at Lion’s Field that went onto the Johnson City Country Club golf course, and Cox was part of back-to-back blasts with Smith.
Matson’s assistant coaches included James Blevins and Matt Tillman.
Matson will manage the Johnson City National All-Star team with a staff that includes Cardwell, Jerry Jenkins and Kevin Lacy.
And if the Nationals meet their potential, Matson’s second title could come much more quickly than the first. The Nationals should be one of the favorites in the Zone, District and perhaps even in the state.