ROME— Jefferson baseball’s motto all season has been ‘Why Not Us?’
There’s no need to question anything now.
The Dragons’ 6-3 win over Cartersville Wednesday in the two teams’ deciding Game 3 of the Class 4A championship series at State Mutual Stadium handed them their first-ever state title in program history.
Third baseman Lane Watkins’s throw to Ryan Godfrey at first for the final out touched off a wild celebration and prompted longtime Jefferson coach Tommy Knight to invoke the motto one last time, though with a slight variation.
“It is us!” Knight exclaimed. “This is just a special group of kids that play for each other and never back down. The feeling is everything I thought it might be. Just awesome.”
Despite capturing the Region 8-4A crown to end the regular season, the Dragons were not on many experts radar with the likes of defending 4A state champion Marist, No. 1-nationally ranked Blessed Trinity, and other perennial powers like Cartersville and Columbus in a brutal Class 4A bracket.
Jefferson, however, bucked all the odds in the semifinals taking down the powerful Titans in a shocking sweep and topped that with a gritty 2-1 series win over the Hurricanes, owners of three titles themselves since 2008, in the finals. The Dragons won the first game 5-4 but was forced to a deciding game three when Cartersville rallied for a 9-3 victory in the second game on Monday.
Senior Patrick Hickox, who won Game 1, pitched 3 2/3 innings in relief Wednesday to hold off the Hurricanes, who had chipped away at a an early 5-0 Jefferson lead. However, after Florida-signee Anthony Seigler touched the southpaw for a long home run to open the bottom of the seventh, and then a double off the wall by Josh Davis, Knight went to the mound perhaps looking to make a change. Hickox would have nothing of it.
“I told coach this was my game and wasn’t coming out,” Hickox said. “I wanted to be the one to finish it.”
He did just that getting a line out to a diving center fielder Justin Cole, a pop to Cole in short center, and Martin’s ground ball.
“The feeling is bigger than anything I ever imagined,” Hickox said. “Watching that last out was amazing, especially as a senior. Hard to put into words.”
While Hickox was the rock on the mound, Cole’s play was perhaps the key element for the Dragons as anything hit within a half-mile radius of State Mutual Stadium was tracked down like a guided missile. He saved at least three runs just in the final game alone with a series of improbable catches. He also had a hit and scored two runs in the finale.
“We probably don’t win this thing without Justin,” Knight said. “He is a heck of a center fielder and was outstanding out there.”
“I love playing at bigger fields (like State Mutual Stadium) because it lets me use my speed,” Cole said. “I wasn’t going to let anything drop if it came near me.”
Jefferson wasted little time in grabbing the lead jumping on Cartersville starter Cohen Wilbanks early and often in the first inning. Cole reached on a one-out error and Watkins and Godfrey both walked to load the bases. Billy Finch was plunked driving in Cole and Watkins later scored for a 2-0 lead when Wilbanks was called for a balk. Clayton Jones then cleared the bases with a two-run double to center for a 4-0 lead. Wilbanks, who recorded just one out, was lifted for Levi Ayers, who was greeted rudely by Sammy Elegreet with a RBI single up the middle scoring Jones to make it 5-0.
The Dragons had more chances over the next two innings but stranded three runners. In the second Cole singled with one out but left stranded at second when Preston Welchel robbed Godfrey of a potential RBI with a diving catch in center to get the Hurricanes out of another jam.
Ayers plunked Finch to lead off the third and was replaced by Gage Morris. Jones popped to short but Finch moved around to third on an error by the second baseman and then centerfielder on a ground ball by Elegreet, who advanced to second on the play. But Morris fanned Cooper and Kade McNally to end the inning.
The Hurricanes then began to chip away at the lead against Jefferson starter Vinny Farley, who ran into trouble in the bottom of the third. He hit Ian Inaba and walked Welchel. Farley was relieved by Will Wood, who walked Davis with one out to load the bases. Barnett plated the Hurricanes’ first run with a sac fly scoring Inaba to trim the lead to 5-1 but Wood struck out Jake Gooch to get out of the jam.
The Hurricanes’ first hit of the game didn’t come until the fourth when Jordan Wilkie beat out an infield hit. Martin followed with a single to center putting runners at first and second with no one out for the third consecutive inning.
After a Warner flyout, Wood walked Inaba to load the bases prompting Knight to bring in Hickox. Hickox got Welchel on a RBI groundout to first and then fanned Davis to end the inning with the Dragons still holding a 5-2 lead.
It stayed that way until the seventh.
Morris settled things down for the Hurricanes retiring 12 of the first 14 batters he faced through the sixth. But Cole walked and then scored on Cartersville’s fourth error of the game for a huge insurance run in the seventh.
Knight said getting early leads in both of the wins in the series proved to be key for the Dragons.
“We talked coming in about getting ahead quickly if we could,” he said. “I think that really settled the guys down to just go out and play.”
For Cole, it all came back to their motto.
“We came in against both Blessed Trinity and Cartersville knowing we had nothing lose,” he said. “We said, ‘Why not us?’ It’s just hard to describe the feeling right now.”