By Trey Williams
Bernie Young would’ve been justified in thinking you were crazy if you’d told him he was going to win a state baseball title in 1998, less than a year after being hired at Science Hill.
First of all, Young was hired to be veteran coach Bob Dempsey’s assistant, but was promoted to head coach a few days after being hired in the summer of ’97 when Dempsey resigned.
Secondly, Science Hill was picked to finish third in the Big Seven Conference behind preseason favorite Sullivan South (Scott Wade, Reid Casey) and Mike Ritz-managed Dobyns-Bennett, which hadn’t lost to Science Hill since the 1980s.
And finally, should the Hilltoppers have gotten out of the region and past a talented Farragut team, nationally ranked Germantown Houston would be waiting in the state tournament.
“It was unbelievable,” Young, now the pitching coach at Providence Academy for former major-league catcher Jeff Reed, said Sunday night. “Some might say we were the fourth-best team in our conference. Elizabethton had Ryan Presnell. … Reid Casey and Sullivan South beat us three times that year. They had Scott Wade.”
South and Science Hill were both ranked in the top 10 much of the season and Sullivan East (Jackson Simerly) was ranked in the state’s top 25.
And Science Hill put its back to the wall by losing to outmanned Tennessee High (11-17) in the winners’ bracket district semifinals that season. But the ‘Toppers overcame it to secure the program’s fourth state title and first since the Steve Spurrier-led Hilltoppers repeated in 1963.
Of course, Young wasn’t exactly unarmed. Brothers Brandon and Nick Crowe, who would go on to have impactful careers for Rod Delmonico at Tennessee, started as a junior and freshman, respectively, in ‘98.
Brian Miller, a 6-foot-6 catcher, played baseball at Milligan after playing multiple seasons of football at Central Florida. Leadoff batter Mike Rader went on to play football at East Tennessee State. And pitcher-third baseman Blake Kaylor was about as valuable as anyone this side of Brandon Crowe that season.
Brandon finished his high school career with a 1.12 ERA and 402 strikeouts in 268 innings. He was 31-7 with 10 saves and also batted .441. He was a two-time all-state selection.
“Those numbers are unbelievable,” Young said. “What I liked about the Crowe brothers more than anything was they were so competitive. They would cut your throat to beat you, buddy. Kids aren’t like that anymore.”
The baseball gods smiled on Science Hill that season. Sullivan South, the regular season and district champion, hosted the ‘Toppers for the regional title in what was an elimination game back then.
The ‘Toppers put two runners on in the first and Casey rolled his ankle while fielding a bunt and left the game. Nick Crowe then greeted Matt Lester with a two-out, two-run single and Science Hill held on to win, 2-1.
“If Reid Casey stays in the game we don’t win a state championship that year – probably not,” Young said. “He was lights-out.”
Science Hill went on to win 10-6 at Farragut in the quarterfinals. It was the Hilltoppers’ first quarterfinals appearance since Charlie Bailey coached them to a state runner-up finish in 1981 with players such as Mark Elrod, Jackie Cook and Billy Patton.
After arriving in Tullahoma for the Final Four, Science Hill routed Warren County in its opener. Next came Germantown (40-4), ranked No. 6 nationally by USA Today and featuring future MLB player Ben Johnson and Mississippi State closer Adam Larson, a 6-foot-3, 225-pounder.
“They were loaded,” Young said. “They hadn’t lost to a team from Tennessee. We shouldn’t have beaten them.
“But ole Blake Kaylor threw a two-hitter against ‘em the first game. That was what vaulted us into the state championship. What a player. Blake was a great third baseman, a good football player that could run like the wind.”
Young said he was in the restroom prior to the winners’ bracket final when a Germantown fan greeted him rather confidently, if not awkwardly.
“This older man in there,” Young said, “who had on Germantown stuff said, “Y’all are getting ready to get some No. 44!’ I said, ‘Sir?’ He said, ‘Y’all getting ready to get some of No. 44.’ I didn’t know, but that was Adam Larson, their big stud.
“They were so intimidating. I mean they had 10 times the fans we had. They had all these flags flying. They hadn’t been beaten by a team in the state of Tennessee. It didn’t look good; let’s just put it that way.
“But then ole Richard Markland hit that three-run double and we come right back the next day (after a rain suspension) and Dennis Higdon hit a two-run homer and John Patterson hit a home run – and them guys hadn’t hit a home run all year. They both went yard. And from that time on, our kids really started loosening up and playing. I think, as they say, the worm turned and the swag came to our dugout.”
The following day the tournament was moved to Winchester, where Germantown would have to beat Science Hill twice in a row for a title. But Brandon Crowe tossed six shutout innings before allowing three runs (two earned) in the seventh and Science Hill (33-8) avoided the if-necessary game with an 8-3 victory. Crowe, the tournament MVP, struck out eight while allowing seven hits and a walk for his second victory in four days.
Kaylor, Patterson and Rader joined Brandon Crowe on the all-tournament team. Rader played left field. Kaylor batted second. Brandon Crowe hit third. Higdon, Patterson (second base) and Nick Crowe (shortstop) often hit fourth through sixth, respectively.
Richard Markland (first base), Richie Delaney, center fielder Clint Estep and Miller might round out a given day’s lineup.
Young said the ’99 team, when Brandon and Nick Crowe were senior and sophomore, was his best, but repeating for the second time in 36 years wasn’t meant to be.
The Crowes played together two years at Tennessee, where Nick got to catch a couple of times when Brandon pitched. But the highs were never any more intense than their first season together playing for Science Hill, although Nick didn’t initially realize the magnitude of the moment until he saw the larger Rader and much larger Miller preparing to mash him in a dogpile.
“To be honest,” Nick Crowe said, “after the game was over I thought, ‘What do we do now? Do we go on to a regional or something?’ Everyone was like, ‘That’s it.’
“And then I could see in everyone else how much it meant. I guess that’s the one defining moment in our high school careers.”