It has already been a memorable season for the Johnson City American Little League, and there’s reason to think more good stuff could happen soon.
The JCA All-Stars begin competition in the Little League state tournament today when they battle Morristown at noon in Winchester.
At stake in the tournament is a trip to Warner Robins, Ga., for the Super Regionals. Win that event, and it’s on to the biggest stage: the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Doing well in Winchester would continue a strong run for JCA, which qualified four teams for state tournaments. The 10-11 team earned a berth, but didn’t have enough players available to compete in the state event. The 9-10 and 7-8 teams also earned state trips.
League president Herman Rice said there have been several reasons for the success of the JCA teams.
“I attribute it a lot to the parents working with the kids,” said Rice. “We also have exceptional coaches, and a lot of talented players. And our league has grown. We’ve added about 100 kids in the last three years.”
Rice said he’s often seen kids hitting or catching fly balls on their days off.
“There has to be a lot of extra work for us to have four teams reach the state tournament,” he said.
Johnson City American’s 12-year-old all-stars enter the state tournament believing they have a chance to win, said Rice, who helps coach the team. This group already has some good history, finishing second to Goodlettsville in the 9-10 year-old state event a couple years ago. Many of those Goodlettsville players made it all the way to Williamsport last year, losing to Japan in the championship game.
“It’s probably the deepest and most talented all-star team to come through the American League in 20 years,” said Rice.
JCA cruised through zone and district tournaments without a loss — and really without a major challenge. They hit 14 homers, outscoring their opponents by a combined margin of 56-8.
Also, Chance Hall authored a perfect game while Carter Pollock and David Bryant each tossed a no-hitter. Bryant ripped four homers, Hall had three, and Wyatt Rush knocked two out of the park.
“It’s a very confident group,” said Rice. “They’ve been in a battle at the state level before. It’s a great group of kids who respect each other and play well together.”
On the 12-man roster, all of the kids have pitching experience. And pitching depth is a key to winning at the state, said Rice.
“You end up playing every day and teams get in trouble because they run out of pitching,” said Rice. “We feel we can put any of eight or nine kids out there on the mound and compete with anybody.
“And the kids can play multiple positions. It’s just a unique group.”
One negative thing about the JCA putting so many teams in the state is the money it takes to get them there.
“We raise money to pay for umpires, league expenses and uniforms during the season,” said Rice. “We don’t budget for the all-stars. It could wind up being $4,000 total for all of the teams.”
If anyone wants to donate, Rice said they can reach him at 737-6400 or send a check to JCALL, 1912 Woodland Ave., Johnson City, TN, 37601. It is tax deductible, and a gift receipt will be given.
The 9-10 team had a lot of success at the state tournament in Athens. JCA won three games before being eliminated Wednesday. The team took home a fourth-place finish.
“We went short-handed because our district ran long because of weather,” said coach Marty Diamond. “We had to play a doubleheader Friday night in the district and got done at 11:30 p.m., and we had to be in Athens on Saturday at noon.
“In Little League you can only pitch so much, so we opened against Tullahoma with three nine-year-old pitchers. We ended up beating them 6-3. It was pretty neat.”
JCA won again on Sunday, beating Gallatin by a score of 7-2. Matthew Levi allowed just one hit on the mound.
On Monday, JCA lost to Spring Hill 13-7, but bounced back to beat Tullahoma 16-9 on Tuesday. JCA was eliminated by Clarksville in a 13-9 decision. Gage Lovelady and Levi were the hitting leaders for the tournament.
The 7-8 team had a nice run to the state tournament, winning the district title in dramatic fashion. JCA scored four runs in the bottom of the sixth inning, capped off by Jackson White’s walk-off RBI single in an 8-7 victory over Unicoi County.
The team was unable to break through with a win at the state in Dandridge, losing 7-4 and 5-3 in the double-elimination event.
“The fields were immaculate, and the whole experience of the tournament was great,” said manager Michael White, whose day job is associate athletic director for communications at East Tennessee State University. “The children had a lot of fun. We played hard and fought hard, but weren’t able to pick up a win. But the experience can’t do anything but help them.”
White said the overall success of JCA is a good sign.
“We’re trying to run it the right way,” said White, who is also a JCALL board member. “This is a great indication to have all four teams win district titles.”