GRAY – One of the most successful baseball seasons in Church Hill Middle School history came to a close Friday night with a 17-4 loss to Vance Middle School in the semifinals of the Area 1-AA Large School Tournament at Ridgeview Elementary.

Vance blew open a close game in the fifth inning with a six-run inning, then put it out of reach with another six-run inning in the sixth.

Vance had jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first inning, scoring all four runs with two outs after bunching together three singles, a double, a walk and an error.

The Panthers, who had defeated Sulphur Springs, 11-1, on Thursday to advance to the semifinals, trimmed Vance’s lead to 4-1 in the second when Zach Justice drove in Colby Lawson, who led off the inning drawing a walk, with a groundout.

The Vikings pushed the lead back to four in the third with a run-scoring fielder’s choice. The Panthers clawed back in the fourth when Lawson singled with one out and advanced to third on a booted ground ball. A single by Justice then drove home Lawson to close to within 5-2.

An error, five walks, a double and two singles produced the Vikings’ first six-run inning that extended their lead to 11-2. RBI singles by Lawson and Cason Christian in the bottom half of the inning made it 11-4 but CHMS could get no closer prior to Vance’s six-run sixth.

Although Church Hill coach Daris Green and the Panthers would have liked to have won the Area Tournament, their 20-3 season was nothing to be ashamed of.

“We won the conference regular-season championship,” Green said. “We finished 14-2 in the conference. We lost to Ridgeview and Unicoi County. Then last Friday, we had the first round of the tournament and we beat North, 13-3.

“Then Monday we had Colonial Heights, who we beat a couple of times during the year, but they were tough. We ended up beating them in the semifinals of the conference tournament, 8-7. Then we got Unicoi County in the finals and beat them, 13-3,” Green said.

The key to the season’s success was the key to any successful baseball season.

“We’ve just had really good pitching,” Green said. “Everybody that we’ve thrown has thrown well.”

Lawson and Justice were the team’s number-one and -two starters.

“That’s been our strength all year,” Green said. “We’ve had two really good ones (Lawson and Justice) and two pretty daggone good ones that can back them up. Then you bring in a little Peyton Steele in relief or Tucker McLain, who has not pitched a whole lot, but they throw strikes. We’ve been very blessed with good pitching this year.”

The Panthers swung the bats, too.

“We’ve had solid hitting 1-through-9, up and down the lineup,” Green said. “Colby Lawson has been solid at third base, solid pitching, solid hitting. I can talk about any of them. Peyton Steele has been really good lately for us. He did a good job pitching for us.

“We’ve got nine eighth graders and they all contribute. Some of our seventh-grade guys, Connor Haynes, has done really well. He’s played really good defense and hit the ball real well and pitched real well for us,” Green said.

“Tucker McLain is another seventh-grader who has done a really good job. Cason Christian has been a guy who has played all over the field. Zack Justice has been our starting shortstop and has been solid. He did a real, real good job against Colonial Heights pitching (last) Monday night,” he said.

“Riley Littleton has been our leader. He’s our centerfielder and lead-off guy. He runs the bases like a maniac and has been solid from Day One. He’s our leader all the way around,” said Green.

“This has probably been the best all-around team that I think I’ve ever had in 17 years of coaching school ball. All-around, from one through 14. We call on some of our bench guys and they come in and do a real good job. Jackson Barrett is normally a starter for us. He didn’t start today but he hit the ball a ton when he came in (Thursday).”

Green credited assistant coaches Mike Miller and Tanner Combs for aiding in the team’s success.

“Coach Miller and Coach Combs do a great job with them. Tanner takes care of all of our pitching. He hasn’t even graduated college yet but he’s done a real good job. I trust him 100 percent. I don’t touch pitching. I let him handle everything. He calls ‘em all. He decides who’s going to pitch and coaches them up. He just does a real good job,” said Green, who appreciated his team’s enthusiasm, perhaps the best he’s ever had on a squad.

“They’re very energetic,” Green said. “They’re just fun to be around. You can call any play, any hit-and-run, and they can execute. They’ve been well-coached all the way up and they’re just fun. They just play well together and they love each other. They kid around and cut up and will be all over the coaches. It’s been fun to be around them. They can kid around and cut up, but when it’s time to turn it on, they turn it on. It’s just a fun group to be around.”