Middlesboro (26-8) advances to face host South Laurel (25-11) in the championship game Thursday at 7 p.m.
“This is what we talked about at the beginning of the year. Our goal has been to win the region and get to the state and once you get there anything can happen. I’ve felt all along like we had the horses to do it, we just had to pull it all together,” said Jacket coach Bill Powell. “It’s a huge win against an opponent like North Laurel that’s been ranked throughout the year. I felt like we were certainly capable of it without stretching it and just playing good, fundamental baseball.”
The Jaguars (28-7) entered as the favorites to win the region, but Middlesboro never trailed. Senior Thomas Epperson gave up just three hits and struck out 11 over 6-1/3 inning. He walked eight and hit three batters, but just two of the five runs he allowed were earned.
“Tom didn’t pitch flawless, but I’ll tell you he pitched a heckuva game. When he’s anywhere close to being on, it doesn’t matter if it’s against North or anybody, they’re going to have trouble with him,” Powell said. “He’s just wild enough to keep people from digging in against him. He’s a great kid and he really laid it on the line for us.”
Middlesboro’s two, three and four hitters — Jake Brock, Epperson and Timmy Helton — combined to got 7-for-10 with three doubles, six runs scored and six RBI in the game. They weren’t alone as everyone in the lineup either had a hit, scored a run on drove one in.
Zach Storm hit a home run for North Laurel, he drove in two runs and scored two. Ethan Eversole and Ryan Shears both singled for the other two Jaguar hits.
North threatened in the top of the first as Marcus Carson walked and Storm was hit by a pitch to start the game. But Epperson picked Carson off at second and then got two strikeouts to end the inning.
The Jackets had a similar start to the bottom of the inning as Austin Baker walked and Brock was hit by a pitch. North starter Taylor Bowling then walked Epperson to load the bases and Helton came through with a two-run single through the right side of the infield. John Millett followed with an RBI hit that bounced off third base. Bubba Brock made it 4-0 with a fly ball to right that was deep enough to score Helton from third.
North got two runs in the second on three walks, a hit batter and a wild pitch. Middlesboro got one of those runs back in the third as Tyler Yoakum singled with one out, Chris Short doubled and Nick Capps delivered an RBI single to make it 5-2.
Storm’s homer came with two out and no one on in the top of the fourth to again bring the Jags within two.
MHS again answered in the bottom of the inning. Epperson singled with one out, went to second on Helton’s ground out, took third on a passed ball and then scored as Millett reached on an error.
The Jackets took complete control with five runs in the bottom of the sixth. Short started the rally with a one-out walk and Capps followed with a bunt. When Bowling’s throw to first sailed wide and far down the right field line, Short was able to score and Capps wound up at second. Baker walked and Jake Brock ripped a double down the first base line to score Capps and make it 8-3.
Zach Hurley took over on the mound for North at that point and was throwing gas. But Epperson turned on a fastball and lined it over the left-fielder’s head for a two-run double. Helton followed with an RBI double of his own to left-center gap and the Middlesboro lead was 11-3.
Powell wasn’t happy with his team’s performance in Monday’s first round game, a 6-2 win over Knox Central. He said then that the Jackets’ “big guys” needed to step up.
“I hate to get on a team when we won like I did after the Knox Central game. But the fact is I knew if this team comes to play we can compete with anybody. That’s what we made a point of doing — coming out here and being ready from the get-go,” Powell said Wednesday. “The kids answered the call and I’m just real pleased.
“Everybody came through. Every single person whether they were in the game or on the bench contributed to this win in some way. It’s really what you would call a total team effort. We didn’t play flawless, but dadgum we played pretty good.”
North scored two runs in the sixth as Carson walked and Storm reached on an error after striking out on a pitch in the dirt. Eversole followed with a two-run single that set the final score at 11-5.
Epperson struck out one batter and walked one to start the seventh inning. Lucas Crawford relieved and got a ground out, walked Austin Thompson with two away, and then got Carson to fly out to center to end the game.
Middlesboro is in the 13th Region championship game for the first time since 2007 and will be trying to win it for the first time since the 2002 team advanced all the way to the Final Four of the state tournament.
South Laurel advanced to the championship game with a 6-3 win over two-time defending champion Clay County in Wednesday’s early semifinal.
The Jackets and Cardinals have developed a good-natured rivalry in recent years as this will be the sixth meeting between the teams in the regional tournament in the last seven years. Middlesboro is 2-3 against South in the tournament during that time.
Middlesboro won the only meeting between the schools this season, a 13-5 win at home back on April 27. That game was tied at 5 with two outs in the bottom of the sixth when the Jackets took advantage of an error and went on to score eight runs.
Thursday’s game is at South Laurel and Powell says he’s looking forward to the atmosphere.
“I told our kids before the game: I love a great crowd whether most of them are for the other team or not. We had a good following tonight anyway, but our kids answered the call,” he said. “I hope South Laurel packs it in. I remember my senior year we won 1-0 in front of their whole school — that’s when it was known as Laurel County. That stuff doesn’t bother us, it picks up everybody.”
— — —
North Laurel 020 102 0 — 5 3 2
Middlesboro 401 150 x — 11 11 3
Taylor Bowling, Zach Hurley (5), Marcus Carson (6) and Ethan Eversole; Thomas Epperson, Lucas Crawford (7) and Bubba Brock. W — Epperson. L — Bowling. HR — NL: Zach Storm.