BENTON, Tenn. - For the first time in 25 years, Polk County is returning to the state baseball tournament.
The Wildcats' mindset was simple Friday for their make-or-break game with Livingston Academy, coach Bill Triplett telling his team, "If they're good, we'll try and beat them by one. If they're not, let's try to run-rule them."
Polk got the five-inning game, beating the other Wildcats 15-2.
And while they may not yet have met expectations, Polk's Wildcats at least have answered some questions they have lived with since losing a sectional at home a year ago.
"I'm so proud of these guys. They have lived with expectations for 12 months, and it isn't that we're better than everybody but rather we played well when we needed to," said Triplett, who was so overcome with emotions that he could barely speak in the team's postgame meeting.
The boys from Benton finished third in the District 5-AA regular season and improved that by one in the district tournament. They then upended District 6-AA winner Red Bank before capturing the Region 3 crown with a win over East Hamilton.
Now they're headed to the state tournament, something Polk last did in 1986 when it reached the semifinals.
"Regardless of what happens here on out, what I'm going to remember about this team is they lived with expectations for a year and then lived up to them," the coach said.
Not that anybody intends to rest on this achievement. There were plans for a buzz-cutting party Friday night - "clippers with no guard," said shortstop Tyler Lee - and then back to work to see how much further they can go.
"This is a team that has never given up, has always kept fighting," said designated hitter Duncan Coffee, who was 3-for-3 with two RBIs.
"Last year we missed it by a hair and we've had to live with that," added Lee, who singled in two runs and added a bunt single. "It feels great, but we're definitely not satisfied."
Pitcher Jared Allen got his eighth win of the year despite not having his best stuff.
"This was possibly my worst pitching performance," the senior said. "I felt fine. I just couldn't get it over [the plate]. I guess I'm making myself feel a whole lot worse than I really was."
He allowed four hits in five innings and helped himself at the plate, swatting a three-run homer on Livingston pitcher Justin Savage's 15th pitch. It was Allen's 50th career home run.
Coffee was the only Wildcat with three hits, but they totaled 13 hits in four turns at the plate and Allen, Michael Hargrove and Lee added two hits each. Allen had four RBIs and Hargrove matched Coffee and Lee with two.
• DeKalb County 12, East Hamilton 2: At Smithville, the Tigers improved to 27-2 with a five-inning victory - and only six hits. They took advantage of six walks, five batters hit by pitches and two errors. Hayden Williams homered and Jason McElvain was 2-for-2 for the Hurricanes (28-10).