Greenback has been eyeing May 24 since baseball workouts began in the winter after being eliminated by Columbia Academy in the Class A state semifinals a year ago.
The Cherokees have rallied around their attempt to reach the final day of TSSAA Spring Fling in Murfreesboro. It has become their season-long motto and verges on the team’s expectation, despite the fact the program has never accomplished the feat before.
“This year, it’s been all about, ‘Let’s play one more day,’” Greenback baseball coach Wes Caldwell told The Daily Times. “Last year taught us that we can play with anybody (in Murfreesboro). We got a little taste of blood and now we’re going with the intentions of winning the thing.
“It’s fun to be a part of because you’re not always in that spot. They believe, and I believe, so hopefully we can play one more day.”
Greenback opens the Class A state tournament against Lake County at 4 p.m. CT on Tuesday.
The Cherokees (28-9) ability to knock off the Falcons and begin its run toward Friday’s championship game hinges on the pitching staff that has carried it throughout the season.
Senior Reese Plemons, who also acts as the primary catcher when not on the mound, leads the rotation in ERA (0.87), WHIP (0.69) and strikeouts (69) over 40 1/3 innings. Senior Cole Riddle has a 2.10 ERA and 1.02 WHIP while striking out 50 over 43 1/3 innings, and senior Seth Riddle enters the tournament with a 2.91 ERA and 1.47 WHIP with 42 punchouts over 45 2/3 innings.
Senior Bryce Hanley (3.00 ERA, 1.68 WHIP) rounds out the staff, while senior Tyler Cullen is a wild card. He has thrown one inning — a shutout frame against Washburn on May 7 — since March 30 because of injury, but the Cherokees think he can contribute on the mound this week.
“A lot of teams have one guy that can win them a game, but we have a whole pitching staff that can win us games,” said Hanley, who also plays shortstop. “That just makes us dynamic because any given day we feel we can go out and win with anybody on the mound and that’s what you need to have.
“You can win a lot of games with one guy, but you can win championships with multiple, and that’s been our mindset.”
Greenback dominated its district, outscoring opponents 200-7 through 11 games, but it also went 12-5 against non-district opponents with a winning record, a slate that included five teams that will compete in Murfreesboro this week.
The Cherokees beat fellow Class A participant University High, which opens against Trinity Christian on Tuesday, Class AA participants Loudon — twice — and Pigeon Forge and Division II-A participant Christian Academy of Knoxville. Their only loss to a state-bound team came against Class A Summertown.
“The thing that is really great is we played a really tough schedule,” Caldwell said. “Reese threw a good game against Alcoa, Cole threw a great game here, Seth beat Pigeon Forge, Bryce beat CAK and TC beat South Pittsburg. All of our guys have beaten a really good team.
“We didn’t spread out the good teams in the schedule. We wanted all five of our guys to face good people and they’ve all been in dogfights.”
Greenback is no stranger to the postseason.
The same group that will take the diamond Tuesday is making its third consecutive trip to state to add to the three times they have reached the Class A BlueCross Bowl in football, winning it all in 2017.
The Cherokees will have to play one more day to add another ring to that prolific resume.
“It gets better and better each year that you can play for a championship, but we’re still not done,” Hanley said. “The Big Dance is Friday, so we’re striving for that.”