Charging into town: Momentum lifts Columbia State into World Series
The first word coach Mike Corn uses to describe East Central District champion Columbia State Community College (Tennessee) is “offensive.”
The Chargers (45-12) averaged nearly eight runs per game this season, and seven starters are hitting at least .330.
But Corn saw an entirely different side of his team during the regional and district tournaments. The gloves came out for the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series-bound Chargers, with momentum from one big play carrying into another.
The other key, Corn said, was the bullpen finding some previously undiscovered depth.
“We’re situational with our pitching, especially our bullpen, a lot more than other teams,” Corn said. “We’re not afraid to bring a guy out there for one batter, or two-thirds of an inning, or whatever we think works. We have kids in specific roles, and they thrive in those roles. I think we do a good job of getting guys into situations where they’re going to get outs for us.”
Of the 14 pitchers on the Columbia State roster, half have thrown at least 28 innings pitched. The lowest amount of appearances on the roster is four, and the majority of pitchers have appeared in at least 14 games.
Kierce Kimbel, a Austin Peay State University (Tennessee) recruit, came on strong late in the season.
Although the 5-foot-10, 190-pound right-hander has struggled at times, his Division I talents have made him a shutdown reliever during both the regional and district tournaments.
The offense has kept the bullpen out of high-pressure situations, with relievers picking up only two saves this season.
Scooter Hightower has been the ace of the Chargers’ staff, pitching 93 2/3 innings with a 10-1 record and a 2.02 ERA. In that span, Hightower has struck out 76 batters and walked only 18.
Of the 30 runs he’s given up, only 21 are earned.
But a defense that once was bumpy evened out later in the season. Corn said his team has improved defensively later in the season, culminating in strong defensive performances in the district tournament that Corn said “really captured momentum for us.”
Second baseman Tyler Fullerton, who hits second in the lineup, is Columbia State’s leading hitter at .421. He has six triples and nine home runs.
Fullerton, a sophomore who will attend Belmont University (Tennessee) next year, has a team-high 19 steals without being caught.
Ronnie Jebavy, a sophomore center fielder who is committed to Middle Tennessee State University, is hitting .352 with 11 stolen bases.
As a group, the Chargers have piled on the extra-base hits. They’ve compiled 101 doubles and 36 doubles, demonstrating gap-to-gap power rather than swinging for the fences.
Columbia State last qualified for JUCO in 1997, with seven total appearances, including four trips in the ‘70s.
But the Chargers also fell one game short in 1994, when Corn was a player at Columbia State.
“When I played here, it was best-of-three at districts,” Corn said. “We fell a game short, and I still remember that feeling. But to get to Grand Junction, it means a lot to these coaches and all the former players. We’re just happy to have a chance to represent this school and the baseball tradition that we’re just so proud of.”
It took some time for Columbia State to round into shape, however.
The Chargers started the season 2-6 before winning nine straight.
“I think once conference play started, that’s when we really got going,” Corn said. “We had a big series sweep over Chattanooga State and our pitching looked really good through that. Outside of one bad series against Jackson State, which we took as a slap in the face, we’ve really been red-hot through our conference games.”
Since the Jackson State series, Columbia State has been successful in every aspect of the game. The Chargers have won 15 straight heading into JUCO, and have won 33 of the past 35 games.
It hasn’t mattered if it’s been low-scoring defensive wins like the three games in the district tournament, or a 14-0 midseason blowout.
“We’ve really responded to everything that’s been thrown at us,” Corn said. “Our entire team is driven to compete.”