BY DREW COOK
STEWARTS CREEK — Union County baseball coach Josh Orrick has repeated one word to his players this postseason: finish.
The Patriots are one win away from finishing as state champions.
With their 11-2 victory over Forrest in the state semifinals Thursday evening, Union County earned the right to play for the Class 2A state championship Friday afternoon against Milan (33-9).
“For our school and our community, going to the state championship means everything to them. We’ve never had a sport make it this far. But that’s not the end goal. The end goal is you’ve got one game – winner take all. We can’t just go to it – we’ve got to go through it,” Orrick said.
This Union County team (31-10) has made program history – they won their first district championship May 8, their first region championship May 12 and their first appearance in a state tournament this week.
Now, they look to complete the run in the biggest game in school history. The Class 2A Championship will be played at 1 p.m. Central time Friday at MTSU’s Reese Smith Jr. Field.
Entering Thursday’s semifinal against Forrest, Union County was undefeated this week, which meant if they lost at 2 p.m., there would be another game immediately after. And in the first game, Forrest jumped to a 7-1 lead after three innings.
With the knowledge that it wasn’t an elimination game for them, Union County could have mailed it in. But they didn’t. They scored five runs in the fourth to get back within a run.
Ultimately, Forrest held on 9-6 to force a second game, but the Patriots’ fight gave them some confidence.
“We were able to scratch and claw our way back into that ball game, and that told me we weren’t going to go away. If it did go to a Game 2, we weren’t going away. That’s just the intestinal fortitude these guys have,” Orrick said.
In the second contest, Union County exploded for an eight-run third inning to take a commanding 9-1 lead early.
“Our approach was string consecutive quality at-bats together,” Orrick said. “Whether that’s a walk, getting on by an error, or a base hit. Success for us is getting on base. When we get on base, we know a guy is gonna get a big hit when that moment comes.”
The moment came – several times in the inning. Ian Setzer and Max Richardson doubled, and Ty Edds, Eben Hansen, Jake Ryder, and Setzer singled.
After Forrest got a run back in the fifth, Richardson doubled again to make it 11-2 – the final score.
Trot Russell had two hits, stole three bases, and scored four times for the Patriots’ offense. His aggressiveness on the base paths is what kickstarted the offense early.
Setzer had three hits, batted in three runs and scored twice. Defensively, he made two diving stops at shortstop to conserve the lead.
Junior Kaden Stinnett got the start on the bump and went the distance, giving the Patriots seven innings of two-run ball.
The drive from Stewarts Creek in Smryna to Maynardville is more than three hours long. Nobody would blame Union County residents for not making the trip.
But they made the drive and certainly made their presence felt – and when the Patriots were one out away from the win, not a single fan was sitting down.
“It started when we won the sectional. Our community raised funds, put it together, and put it into the baseball account. That way, we can feed the guys, make sure they’re in a nice hotel and in peak performance,” Orrick said.
“Union County is a special place. It’s a special town. They’re just as much invested in this championship as we are.”