Tuscola baseball stays hot ahead of battle for conference lead

Apr. 23—Tuscola baseball is red hot, earning their fourth straight win with a 13-2 victory over Smoky Mountain.

"We challenged them," Tuscola coach Zack Shepherd said. "Don't look ahead. Don't take anything for granted. We told the seniors that before the game tonight, they had three guaranteed home games left. Make them count. I think they came out pretty focused and we handled business."

The hot streak comes at the perfect time for the Mountaineers. This week, Tuscola will take on West Henderson in a pair of matchups that could very likely decide the Mountain 7 champion this season.

The series will put two of the Mountain 7's best squads across from one another on the diamond in a battle for the conference crown.

"We're just going to compete," Shepherd said. "We're going to put our nine on the field and they'll put their nine on the field and we're going to compete our tails off."

In Friday night's win, the scoring did not get started until the second inning, but it got started in a big way.

Smoky Mountain struck first. Tuscola walked the bases loaded before an error scored the first run of the game for the Mustangs.

Senior Noah Stepp buckled down on the mound, striking out the next two batters to stop the bleeding.

In the bottom half of the second inning, Tuscola opened the floodgates on their opponents.

Junior Evan Conner led things off with a walk, followed by Senior Jed West's single. Senior Owen Ward singled a pinch-running junior Tyler Williams to tie the game.

Senior Brayden Cockrell singled in the next at-bat to send two more runs across the board.

A double from junior Kolt Nelson and a pair of singles from Stepp and sophomore Amos Rich scored three more runs, bringing the Mounties' total to six.

It was one of two six-run innings that Tuscola would put together.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's just a credit to the guys," Shepherd said. "They work their butts off. They hit seven days a week. They're a very tight-knit group. They expect very high things out of themselves."

In the third inning, West came in to score from third on a passed ball, extending the lead to 7-1.

In the fourth, Smoky singled a run before an unconventional double play ended the inning. After sophomore Mason Harrell struck out a batter, Conner caught the runner trying to steal second on the same pitch.

In the bottom half of the inning, Tuscola got right back to it.

Nelson led off the inning with a triple into right field. As the junior rounded second, Shepherd had his hands up to tell Nelson to stop at second, but his eyes were set on third.

"The way we coach them in practice is that the ball is in front of you, you know the arms, you know the depth," Shepherd said. "He felt like he had it and in a 7-2 ball game, I like the aggressiveness."

The triple was the cherry on top of a fantastic night for Nelson, who went 2-for-4 at the plate with a double, triple, two runs and an RBI.

"We've been doing a lot of stuff with Kolt because the last couple of games, in his mind, he's been struggling," Shepherd said. "It was really good to see him get dialed back in because that's big going forward."

The triple was followed by a walk for Stepp. In the following at-bat, the pitcher attempted to pick Stepp off at first. The throw was offline, allowing Nelson to score from third.

Rich then doubled to send Stepp to third. A double from Conner scored Stepp.

A walk for Harrell loaded the bases. Then, a bases-loaded walk for Ward scored Rich.

Cockrell stepped up next and hit a ground ball to shortstop. The infielder attempted to fling the ball to second, but threw it wide and into the outfield. Cockrell made his way all the way around to third, with all three runners previously on base coming across to score.

In the top of the seventh, Harrell closed the game out with three straight outs.

Now, all attention is on the West Henderson Falcons. The Mountain 7's leaders come into the series with Tuscola holding a 16-2 record, including a perfect 8-0 in conference play. In conference games, West Henderson is outscoring their opponents by a score of 90-16, averaging a winning margin of 9.25 runs per game.

That includes 15-0 and 19-1 wins against this Smoky Mountain team earlier in the year.

Shepherd said it's no problem keeping the boys motivated, however. The problem is keeping them from overworking themselves and pushing themselves too hard.

"As a coach, we actually have to flip what we do," Shepherd said. "Instead of telling them to do this, this and this, we have to keep them reined in because they expect so much out of themselves."