MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — For the second straight year, the third time in five years and the ninth time in program history, the Walters State Senators are heading to the Alpine Bank JUCO World Series.
The third-ranked Senators qualified for the 10-team tournament to determine the 2019 NJCAA national champion by erasing a four-run deficit and scoring the wining run in the eighth inning of Thursday's 5-4 victory over second-ranked Gordon State to sweep the NJCAA East Central District Championship Series in two games at Ken Campbell Field.
The Senators trailed 3-0 after one inning and 4-0 after the fifth, but a three-run homer by Jerry Hammons tied it in the sixth inning and an RBI single from pinch-hitter Jake Jennings, a hometown kid, put Walters State in front and the bullpen slammed the door on the Highlanders to end the series in a sweep.
With the win, Coach Dave Shelton and his Senators will enter the JUCO World Series at Sam Suplizio Field in Grand Junction, Colorado, riding a seven-game winning streak, having won 12 of their last 14 games to improve to 52-9 on the year. WSCC closed out its home schedule with a 20-4 record at Ken Campbell Field this season.
The loss brought an end to one of the best seasons in school history for Coach Travis McClanahan and his Highlanders, as they end the campaign with a 50-9 mark. Gordon State entered the series with a 25-game winning streak, but they could only muster six runs and 11 hits during the two games in the series.
The Senators loaded the bases in the first inning to no avail, as back-to-back singles from Drew Haynie and Hammons before Braydon Runion was hit by a pitch with two outs was followed by Michael Robinson grounding into a fielder's choice at third to get Gordon State hurler Adam Leverett out of an early jam.
The Highlanders jumped on top in the home half, using a base hit from leadoff man Jason Fointno and walks from Paul Grazzini and Derek Wylie to load the bases with no outs against Senators starter Corey Stone. Stone hit Cole Phillips and Ethan Scott both with a pitch to bring in two runs, and Jay Pendley plated a run with a sacrifice fly to make it a 3-0 lead after one inning.
The Senators loaded the bases again in the third on a base hit from Hammons before Brayden Combs was hit by a pitch and Robinson walked with two outs, but Leverett struck out JL Bland to end the threat.
The Highlanders padded their lead in the fifth inning, as Phillips walked to lead off the inning and moved to second when Scott reached on an error. After a strikeout, Phillips stole third and scored on a sacrifice fly by Sam Kuchinski to make it a 4-0 advantage.
Leverett walked Robinson to lead off the sixth inning before being replaced on the mound by reliever Cal Fuller, who bobbled a grounder from Bland that allowed be him to each first base before Mason Streater moved both runners up with a sacrifice bunt. Xavier Arnette was hit by a pitch to load the bases with one out, and Haynie delivered an RBI grounder to get WSCC on the board. Hammons followed with a three-run homer over the wall in left-center, pulling the Senators even at 4.
Gordon State got runners on the corners with two outs in the bottom of the sixth but could not score, and the Senators nearly took the lead in the top of the seventh but Runion was gunned down at the plate for the third out of the frame on a fielder's choice.
Lindsey breezed through the home half of the seventh with two strikeouts and a fly ball, keeping it tied at 4 through seven complete. The Senators took the lead for the first time, and for good, in the top of the eighth, as Arnette legged out an infield single to begin the frame and moved up 90 feet on a sacrifice bunt by Haynie. After Bryce Hodge walked with two outs, Jennings blooped an RBI single into left to score Arnette with the go-ahead run. Two pitching changes later, WSCC had the bases loaded but Robinson popped up and the lead remained 5-4.
Gavin Patel led off the bottom of the eighth with a single and Fointno bunted him to second before Kody Davidson came on in relief and struck out Grazzini and Wylie to shut down the Highlanders' threat.
The Senators got a leadoff single from Bland in the top of the ninth but nothing else, leaving Gordon State within a run going to the bottom of the ninth. Phillips ripped a leadoff single off Davidson, but pinch-hitter Jamel Rookard's sacrifice bunt attempt was caught by Davidson diving off the mound, and he doubled off Phillips at first base. Davidson struck out Pendley to end the game, and the Senators dog piled behind the mound in celebration.
Hammons had three hits and drove in three runs to place the WSCC offense, while Haynie, Combs, Jennings, Bland and Arnette each added a single in the win. Haynie and Jennings had the other two RBIs in the contest.
Fointno and Phillips had two hits apiece in the loss, with Kuchinski driving in two runs and Phillips and Pendley both adding an RBI in the defeat.
Lindsey (4-0) picked up the win after allowing an unearned run on three hits with four strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings of relief. Davidson notched his third save in a row, giving up one hit and fanning three batters in 1 2/3 innings to end the contest. Stone was touched for three earned runs on just one hit while striking out five, walking four and hitting two batters in three innings. Jack Collins allowed a hit and hit a batter while recording a strikeout in 2/3 of an inning.
Fuller (5-1) took the loss after surrendering four runs (two earned) on four hits in 2 2/3 innings of relief. Leverett allowed an unearned run on three hits with eight strikeouts, five walks and two hit batters in five-plus inning. Dylan High walked the only batter he faced, and Preston Felt gave up a hit and fanned three in his 1 1/3 innings of work.
The Senators became the sixth team to qualify for the 10-team World Series, joining Monroe (32-17), Chattahoochee Valley (35-18), New Mexico (42-15), Navarro (38-16) and two-time defending national champion Chipola (38-18). The remaining four slots will be filled by Saturday.