Johnson City National Little League manager Jerry Jenkins believes a team-first attitude is why his group of 12-year-old All-Stars is headed to the state tournament today in Clarksville.
From day one and even after a disappointing defeat to start the district tournament, he said they have kept a “we-not-me” philosophy.
“I’ve coached All-Star teams that were maybe more talented than these guys,” Jenkins said. “But none of them played like a team like these guys. They make it easy to coach. They back each other up and nobody gets down on anybody. This has been a special group of kids.”
While there aren’t the All-Star egos, there is All-Star talent.
It starts with third baseman Kaden Weir, who led the team with a .520 batting average and five home runs at the recent District 5 tournament in Erwin. While there isn’t anyone designated as the team’s ace, Weir is often put on the mound in a big-game situation.
“He’s quite the player,” Jenkins said. “He’s been key for us, putting up a ton of RBIs. We saved him for the championship game against Bristol because we knew they were throwing their No. 1 guy, so we saved him for that. He’s also done a great job at third, and he’s a tough out, always putting the ball in play.”
He’s just one of five boys listed as a pitcher, which was key in the District 5 tournament. JC National was shut out by Unicoi County 6-0 in the opening game, but won six straight games to come back and win the championship.
The boys had to beat Unicoi County 11-8 in the losers’ bracket final before winning two games over an undefeated Bristol team.
Five boys — Michael Degenarro, Josh Wooten, Jacob Cunningham, Briley Townsend and Weir — were called on to pitch when the team had to play six games in eight days.
“You definitely have to have a lot of arms,” Jenkins said. “That was a key for us getting through the losers’ bracket because once you lose that first game, you play every day. The way Little League has pitching rules set up, being able to throw multiple guys in a game and still be effective, that was really big for us.”
There was plenty of offense including a grand show of power with 14 home runs overall. In addition to Weir’s five, Townsend had four, including a three-run, game-tying home run in the first win over Bristol. Kaden Grayer finished with three round-trippers, while Chance Wladischikin and Mason Broome also hit homers.
“We’re getting home runs all the way back to the seven-hole,” Jenkins said. “We’re getting home runs from subs. That’s huge when you can take somebody off the bench in a key spot and they hit a three-run homer. That’s a big momentum swing.”
Assistant coach Steve Cunningham added there are no easy outs in the lineup. He said it’s not just1 through 9, but 1 through 12 as you factor in everyone and see there aren’t any true subs.
For lineup purposes, Grayer is the catcher with Townsend at first, Wooten at second, Degenarro at shortstop and Weir at third. If one of them is pitching, then Nate Tucker will usually play at second base.
Cunningham, Wladischkin and Chris Gallegos are all listed as left fielders. Broome is in center field with either Benjamin Lynch or Tyler Blevins usually in right field.
Each have their strengths with Jenkins praising Gallegos, Lynch and Tucker for their recent contributions on defense, while Blevins is a smart base runner, who scored a lot of runs in the District 5 tournament.
“This is a tough group to make a starting lineup,” Jenkins said. “We debate up to the last minute on who’s going to be playing. We go with the hot hand lots of time. It’s who’s had the good game or who had the good practice and warmed up well.”
Cunningham said they’ve tried to keep it simple, telling the pitchers to just get it across the plate and throw strikes and let the defense handle the rest.
So far, their plan has worked like a charm. The team knows, however, the road is about to get a lot tougher. South Nashville won the Southeast Region and two games in last year’s Little League World Series tournament, while Goodlettsville made it all the way to the World Championship game against Japan two years ago.
Still, Jenkins feels this group of boys can compete with the very best of them.
“The goal is to keep winning,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to win five games and we’ll do our best. I know we have the talent, but there are going to be some really good teams. Tennessee has sent the Southeast representative to the World Series the last two years so there is definitely some tough competition in this state.”
JC National opens play against Knoxville Karns today at 3 p.m. There will be live streaming of the game on the Clarksville National League website.