And the Diamond Dragons had a season that set records and broke hearts
In 1997, the Clinton Dragons baseball team had an absolute bombshell of a season, during which they went 27-4.
With no baseball this year due to the coronavirus, it’s interesting to look back.
The 1997 season actually started with a loss.
The first game of the season between the Dragons and the Oak Ridge Wildcats ended with a 4-3 loss for the Dragons after the game was called for rain in the fifth inning. The Dragons, short three players still competing in a basketball tournament, held the lead in the first four innings, but lost it in the fifth. The loss ended a three-year, six-game win streak over the Wildcats.
The Dragons, this time with a full team, made up for the loss with a decisive 13-2 win later that same week. The Dragons took a 3-0 lead in the first inning and snowballed from there.
Soon after that, Clinton hosted the baseball team from Pennsylvania — the Oil City Oilers.
For the Oilers, it was the first game of the season. The Oilers were on a swing through Southern states that also included visits to Bearden, Kingston and Rockwood.
Clinton won 5-3 in a game in which pitcher Tommy Moree allowed only one earned run in nearly six innings and whiffed 10 batters.
The very next week, the Dragons beat the Knox Central Bobcats for their first win at Fountain City Park in nearly 10 years, finishing the game 6-3.
Brennan Jones held the mound for that game, allowing only three runs across his five innings. In 1996, the Dragons broke an eight-year losing streak to the Bobcats.
The Dragons kept rolling after their win over the Bobcats, cinching a 15-14 victory over Southview from Cleveland, Ohio, in the Southeastern Baseball Shootout.
The Dragons were behind until the bottom of the fifth, when they scored five times to gain the lead.
Jordan Holbrook scored the winning run for the Dragons, with head coach Alvin Taylor saying it was one of the wildest games he could remember.
The win over Southview concluded a perfect 4-0 week in the Shootout and put the Dragons record to 8-1.
The Dragons also pulled a 2-0 shutout win over North Olmsted, a 9-1 win over Sandusky Perkins, and a 9-5 win over Waite, all teams from Ohio.
Clinton went on to beat Karns that next Monday, the week of April 9, winning 7-2 at home despite pitcher Brennan Jones taking a ground ball to the foot in the third and two pitches to his back and wrist.
Days after that, Clinton beat the Bobcats at home, going 11-1 before the mercy rule brought the game to an early end. That completed Clinton’s first season sweep against Central since 1988.
The Dragons won against the Beavers again in an away game when Brennan Jones drew a walk with the bases loaded in the top of the seventh to break a 2-2 tie, and beat Anderson Count 12-1 in five innings at the Maverick diamond.
Both games put the Dragons up 12-1 by mid-April, and giving them a large amount of momentum going into the second part of their season.
After a second win against Anderson County where the Dragons won 11-4, they faced Campbell County, in a game in which Clinton High tied nationally for the second-most home runs in a single inning. The Dragons hit three consecutive and five total home runs in the second inning.
That feat was recorded by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Coach Alvin Taylor, after the game, said it was a fantastic experience, and something very rarely seen.
“It’s something to be proud of,” he said. “It’s something they’ll remember.” This was actually the second record Clinton set in 1997, with the basketball team sinking 23 treys in a game, tying the second-place record for treys in a single game. The kicker? Their opponents during that game were – you guessed it – Campbell County.
Campbell County batter Steven Thornton scored a grand slam during that game, but it did little to help the Cougars, who ultimately lost 15-5.
After beating Webb Academy, and with 19 consecutive wins under their belt, the Dragons were ranked number four in the Johnson City Press state baseball poll, behind Germantown, Dobyns-Bennett and Christian Brothers.
Not long after beating Webb, Clinton also went on to beat Danville 14-2 and McCreary Central 14-1. In the same week, Clinton beat Powell 11-0.
After an 8-2 home win against Halls, the Dragons secured the number one seed for the district tourney.
Unfortunately for the Dragons, soon after they secured the number one seed, their long win streak finally came to an end in their second game against Halls. The very next day, they lost 6-5 against Elizabethton after losing the lead at the bottom of the ninth inning. The two losses put the Dragons at 23-3 for the season, but they held their seed.
Clinton came back swinging, though, beating Webb again in a 13-3 win against the private school, which, at the time, was ranked number three in the Knoxville area, just behind Clinton and Farragut.
Clinton entered the district strong despite a 5-1 loss to Farragut on the Dragons’ senior night, going on to wallop Halls 10-0 in six innings and thumping Oak Ridge 11-3.
That automatically secured their place in the region tournament and pulled in scouts from the University of Tennessee, Austin Peay State University and Hiwassee College.
Finally, in a poetic game against the Red Devils, the Dragons avenged their fallen win streak by exploding in the bottom of the fifth inning of the district final to overtake the Devils, who led for the first four quarters.
The Dragons pulled seven runs in a single inning, going on to beat the Devils 12-7 and secure their first district championship since 1976.
Jason May, nicknamed “Juice” by his teammates, got his first career home run during the district championship – the last of the team’s eight seniors.
Travis Rochelle relieved starting pitcher Casey Taylor after Taylor allowed 10 hits across five innings, and went on to strike out five of the seven batters he faced to end the game.
Entering the region tournament, the Dragons absolutely destroyed Maryville, walking away with a 13-0 win against the Rebels to make their record 27-4, and position them to again face Halls.
And it was in that game against Halls that this remarkable story comes to an end.
Despite a promising early start by the Dragons, Halls scored four runs in the sixth inning to pull ahead and finish 7-4, ending the Dragons’ season and baseball careers of eight seniors, three of whom were also key standouts through the team’s outstanding basketball season.
Alvin Taylor said that, in his 21 years as head coach, he had never given a harder postgame speech.
Taylor’s own son, Casey Taylor, was one of the seniors who ended their baseball careers that night.
“It was the toughest one I’ve gone through, being with that bunch for years,” Taylor said after the game.
“We’ve played through summer ball. I’ve coached some of them in middle school basketball. With them being friends with Casey and around the house a lot, I was a lot closer to them. I don’t think there was a dry eye in that whole group.”
And so ends a remarkable story 23 years gone now, in a world that seems foreign and far removed from the strange times we’re experiencing now.
Clinton, as a baseball program, is rebuilding now, and during rebuilding, it can be hard, especially for high schoolers, to think of your school as anything other than it is at that moment. And that’s why it’s important to remember the legacy, the trials and triumphs of the players that stood on that field before and played for each other, and for their parents and teachers and classmates. It’s important to remember what a program can be – what it has been.
Here is an excerpt from the account of that final loss:
“While the Red Devils celebrated and departed … Dragon players remained on the grass near the team dugout long after the game ended, and long after the stands had emptied.”