Updated at 9:10 p.m. on May 20, 2022, to correct "quarterfinals" to "semifinals" in headline and story.
Sale Creek coach Jimmy Pierce quietly walked around the diamond Friday afternoon, taking up the bases one by one before resting on his bucket seat for a brief moment.
Baseball season had just ended for his Panthers in particularly disappointing fashion, with an extra-inning loss at home all that stood between them and the program's first trip to the TSSAA Spring Fling. Instead, Gordonsville is headed for the state quarterfinals next week in Murfreesboro after fighting back from a five-run deficit to win 11-9 in eight innings in a riveting Class 1A sectional.
The mood was somber for the home team after coming so close, but that won't be the feeling when Pierce remembers the six players who made up this year's senior class, a group that transformed the Panthers' reputation.
"They have a lot to be proud of," Pierce said. "Sale Creek baseball had been a freaking doormat for a lot of years. It ain't a doormat anymore. Those guys loaded the program up on their back, and they brought it all the way up.
"They won the first ever region championship in program history this year. When this group of seniors were freshmen, we had some guys jump ship. They fought together and brought this program into relevance."
Sale Creek had never reached double digits in wins in a single season this century until 2018. This year Sale Creek finished 22-7-1 and set a program record for wins — with the notable victories including those against Class 3A's Soddy-Daisy and 2A's Marion County and Meigs County — and repeated as District 5 champions. They beat South Pittsburg 3-2 on Monday to reach the Region 3 final, then broke through with Wednesday's 10-7 win against Lookout Valley.
This year's seniors, whose sophomore season was taken away when the TSSAA canceled spring sports amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, compiled 50 wins in three years — and earned their coach's respect for how they got there.
"This is the hardest-working group of kids I have ever been around," Pierce said. "They didn't want to miss a day. I would ask them if they wanted to take a day off, and they always said no, they wanted to practice.
"They are so disappointed about not making it to Murfreesboro, but one day they will realize how great of a team they had and how special this group was. They have really set the bar high, and I expect the underclassmen to carry the torch and be a competitive program for years to come."
Early in Friday's sectional, Sale Creek looked like a team of destiny, and a big crowd — so large that the concession stand rand out of food — was there for the midday matchup.
Mr. Baseball finalist Jakob Elrod homered in his first two at-bats — and produced back-to-back shots with fellow senior Camden Penny in the first inning — and Garrett Pickett totaled three hits. The Panthers blistered the ball through the first four innings as they had 14 hits and built leads of 6-1 and 9-5, with senior Javan O'Kelley delivering a two-run single with two outs in the fourth.
Ultimately, though, Gordonsville (24-12) secured its place among the final four in the classification as junior Connor Glover mixed in a slow curve with an occasional fastball to toss four scoreless innings of one-hit ball.
Penny was among Sale Creek's individual standouts this season — he hit .460 with 38 RBIs and 14 extra-base hits and posted a 1.02 ERA while pitching 48 innings — but he was thankful to be part of a team that shared a common goal.
"We were not expected to make it as far as we did, but everyone stepped up and embraced winning," Penny said. "I will miss the friendships with the players and coaching staff. Coach (Dalton) Conley really gave himself up for the seniors and gave us a chance to play at the next level. To be a part of this program is something I will be forever grateful for."