After getting charged up on AC/DC, the Lightning put on a powerful display en route to the Little League city tournament championship last weekend.
It was the fourth straight year a Johnson City American League team won the city tournament and completed a 24-1 season for the Lightning. It was a matchup of 23-1 teams in the championship, and the defending-tournament champion McLeod Rebels were responsible for the Lightning’s lone loss.
Lightning players had worn black jerseys until the loss to McLeod a third of the way into the season, and began wearing yellow after the loss. But after taking batting practice before the championship game, the Lightning players went behind the dugout and changed from yellow jerseys back to their old black ones.
Then players reappeared – with arms crossed while AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blared – to watch McLeod take infield. Throwing the switch energized Lightning players, parents and coaches.
“They were absolutely fired up,” said Bo Westmoreland, who coaches the Lightning with Jim Pollock and Marty Diamond. “The parents even loved it. … It set the tone.”
Conner Westmoreland and Carter Pollock reached to begin the game, and Matthew Levi followed with a three-run home run.
“Conner drew a walk after a long at-bat and Levi hit a three-run home run,” Westmoreland said, “and it was over.”
Indeed, the Lightning scored six runs in the first and Levi pitched a two-hit shutout in the 12-0 championship victory. Levi, who has two years of Little League remaining, is frequently referred to as “Manchild.” He led the league in home runs as a 9-year-old, a feat Westmoreland feels certain is unprecedented in any of the city’s three leagues.
“He’s the most talented kid I’ve ever seen,” said Westmoreland, who also has Levi and most of the Lightning on his Thunder travel team. “We were over in North Carolina in a game with runners at second and third and a base open … in a close game, and the coach didn’t walk him. He said, ‘Normally, I’d walk him, but I just enjoy watching him hit.’”
Wyatt Rush batted cleanup for the Lightning behind Levi. Outfielder Drew Reagan and second baseman Cade Pollock generally batted fifth and sixth, while Jaxon Diamond, Thomas Humphries and center fielder B.J. Edwards rounded out the order. Outfielders Oliver Ferenbach, Chris Godfrey and Griffin Nikles also played roles in the 24-win season.
“It was a very solid Little League team, one of the best I’ve seen,” Westmoreland said. “And they all contributed.”
Carter Pollock, Conner Westmoreland, Rush and Levi, the team’s hardest thrower, shouldered the pitching load. Levi is also a catcher and Carter Pollock played shortstop, too.
The 9-year-old Diamond – “he’s gonna be a superstar,” Westmoreland said – played third base, as did Rush when he wasn’t catching Levi. Diamond and Rush each had three hits in the championship game.
After winning its tournament opener by forfeit, the Lightning outscored opponents 46-3 while winning the ensuing three games. It beat Johnson City National’s Harman Ice 20-3 in the semifinals after entering the fifth inning trailing 3-2. It scored nine runs in each of the last two innings.
Cade Pollock was 5-for-5 with six RBIs against Harman Ice. Rush had four hits and Levi, Edwards and Carter Pollock each had three hits.
Winning the season’s rubber match with McLeod was especially gratifying. After winning the teams’ initial meeting in the second game of the season, Westmoreland said the Lightning played nervously in the regular season rematch.
“There was a huge crowd, like it was the city championship,” Westmoreland said. “McCleod jumped on us 4-0 in the first inning. … We made three errors in the first inning.
“And Bailey Burkes just shut us down. He’s a big, strong kid and he just threw gas.”
JC American’s Smarty Pants won back-to-back city titles in 2010-11, and McLeod gave the Americans a three-peat last season. Westmoreland said fourth-year American League president Herman Rice deserves much of the credit. Rice even helped get a four-man team from Little League World Series runner-up Goodlettsville to participate in a fundraising golf tournament last fall.?“He’s a tremendous people person,” Westmoreland said. “Really, it’s like a giant family down there (at JC American League’s Lions Park).”
The feeder tournaments for the Little League World Series begin locally on July 5. The state tournament is in Winchester this year. Westmoreland is excited about Johnson City American’s potential to reach it.
He said it’s the best batch of All-Stars since JC American had players such as Jake Bedard, Landon Knack, Bailey Feathers and Reece Westmoreland lead the Americans to back-to-back state tournaments in 2009-10. Bo Westmoreland said he understood those teams’ repeat to be the first consecutive state tournament appearances by a Johnson City team since JC National did it (1975-76).
“This is easily the best (group of players) since the 2009-10 teams,” Westmoreland said. “Our goal is to get to the state tournament.”