BY DAVE LINK
MURFREESBORO — Matt Buckner won his fifth state championship Saturday afternoon since taking over as Farragut’s baseball coach in 2010.
This one was special for Buckner because of the team makeup.
Buckner’s son Lukas plays on this Admirals team. So do several of Lucas’s sophomore classmates. Farragut starts six players from the Class of 2024, and they played big again in the Class 4A state championship at Murfreesboro Oakland High School.
Sophomore third baseman Eli Evans hit a three-run double in the seventh inning and lifted Farragut to a 4-1 victory over Houston for the state title.
“It’s different for me because of the personal relationships with this group, and obviously my son is on this team,” said Buckner, fighting off emotional tears, “so I always dreamed there would be a day that this might happen. It’s a cool moment.”
Lukas Buckner, the shortstop, said he’s never talked with his dad about winning state. Didn’t want to.
“I don’t think we wanted any bad luck or anything like that,” Lukas said. “One goal. That’s our one goal every year (to win state), and we work hard for it.”
Evans went 3 for 4 in Saturday’s final when Farragut had seven hits. After grounding out in the first inning, he hit singles in the fourth and sixth innings before hitting the game-winning double.
“Pure joy,” Evans said of the moment. “I’ve been wanting to do something good for these seniors. They’ve been nothing but great to me, role models. … All of them.”
One of them is senior right-hander Jaxson Pease, a Tennessee Tech signee.
Pease fired a five-hitter against Houston, striking out five and walking two. He threw 108 pitches.
Farragut (30-11-1) had its struggles this season, but Pease said it was a learning curve.
“Our team’s pretty young,” Pease said. “We’ve got almost all sophomores playing, but they’ve got talent. The one thing we needed to do was fail some and just learn to fight through adversity, so we played one of the hardest schedules out of anybody in the state. We played top-five teams in the nation, so that just made us tougher and taught us how to battle, and really that turned our team around.”
Houston (38-9) was coming out of the losers’ bracket and needed to win twice against Farragut on Saturday to win its third state title and its first since 2005.
The Admirals, who beat the Mustangs in the 2010 and 2014 state final, did it again on a cool, overcast day.
“I respect those guys (at Houston) a ton,” Matt Buckner said. “They do a great job. It’s a really, really well coached ball team. We beat a really, really good club today. I’m proud of our guys.”
Houston junior right-hander Dean McCalla and senior left-hander Connor Weaks were locked in a pitcher’s duel against Pease for most of the game.
McCalla took a three-hit shutout into the fifth inning.
He started the inning by hitting seventh-hitting Jack Alley with a pitch.
McCalla, who threw 69 pitches, was relieved by Weaks, who walked Garrett Brewer.
Mark Underwood followed with a bunt single down the third-base line, loading the bases.
Leadoff hitting Lukas Buckner hit an RBI fielder’s choice for a 1-0 lead.
Weaks ended the inning with a strikeout and popup.
Pease took a one-hit shutout into the sixth inning and with one out, ran into trouble.
Ryan Bland hit a single up the middle. After a deep flyout, Houston’s Donovan Mitchell tied the game with an RBI double to the gap in left-center field.
Pease ended the inning with a strikeout and was confident going into the seventh.
“I’ve got 100 percent faith in these guys,” Pease said. “I trust every single one of them, and I trusted myself today. I knew we were going to get it done.”
And they did.
With one out in the seventh, Underwood singled between third base and shortstop and advanced to second on a passed ball.
Buckner ran the count to 3-1, then was intentionally walked.
After a groundout, Landis Davila drew a walk, loading the bases.
Evans was next, and he ripped a line-drive down the third-base line for a double and 4-1 lead.
“I was just looking to do something smart, get a hit, nothing too big,” Evans said. “Just win the ballgame. I had runners in scoring position. I was just trying to knock them in.”
Weaks ended the inning when Jett Johnson’s line drive was caught by second baseman Ryan Mitchell.
Pease started the bottom of the seventh by striking out Chandler Day.
Robinson Martin hit a single to left, and Tyler Yearwood followed with a grounder down the third base line for a double.
Pease walked eighth-hitting Weaks, loading the bases with one out.
Matt Buckner called timeout and went to the mound. So did the infielders.
“He was just giving me time to chill out,” Pease said. “That’s all it was. He didn’t even have a thing to say. He said, ‘Just chill for a second. You’ve got all the time in the world. I know you’re going to get it done.’”
Pease got it done on the next batter.
Jessie Dalton hit a grounder to second baseman Jake Merrick, who stepped on second base and threw to first for the double play.
Game over. State title, Farragut.
“I’ve watched a lot of these kids grow up from being around my son’s group there,” Buckner said. “They’re a tough, tough group of kids. At times they’re a lot to handle, but man, they are tough players. And then you’ve got two seniors, Pease and Brewer, who are just leading us. They led us so beautifully and I’m so proud of those guys.
“Garrett Brewer (the catcher) is out here playing with a torn hamstring when other guys wouldn’t even play. He’s tougher than anybody I’ve ever met. He’s just a stud of a kid. I’m so proud of him and Jaxson. What can I say? He got us through a stinkin’ gem against a really great ball team.”
Farragut won its 13th consecutive game by beating Houston, and it took another seventh-inning rally with a tie game.
“We’ve been doing it for about three or four weeks,” Buckner said. “We just keep grinding, man. We’ve got a long lineup of really talented players, and they really put you to the test. They put you to the test, one through nine. They make you work and they make you work and they make you make plays, and we’ve got some guys who can run and put pressure on you. We’re just able to keep grinding till the end. It’s something else.”
The Admirals should be something else the next couple of years with this sophomore class.
“It’s big. It’s big,” Buckner said of the future. “They better get ready. It’s big.
“They’re going to be a lot to handle. They’re a lot to handle right now, in all ways.”