At last — TSSAA title comes to Tigertown

May 30—MURFREESBORO — A school which contended for state football championships generations ago and whose volleyball team reached the finals in 2019 finally won its first TSSAA team title last Saturday.

Watertown’s baseball team, formed in 1988 primarily with players with no background in the sport, won the Class 2A championship with a 10-3 trouncing of Pigeon Forge at Blackman’s David Price Field.

The Purple Tigers used their tried-and-true formula of pitching, defense and forcing the other team to make mistakes to dominate the other team of Tigers from Sevier County, which was in its second straight finals and fourth since 2005 (winning it all in ’13). PFHS was 39-3 entering the championship game.

But the Purple Tigers, who finished 29-9, took it to their East Tennessee opponents early. Consecutive one-out singles by Kendal Bayse, Lance Fripp and Brady Watts were followed by a fourth straight hit, a two-run single to center by leadoff batter K.J. Wood in the bottom of the second inning.

“Those two early got us confidence,” Purvis said. “We wanted a couple of more. We had a chance to score a couple of more. But those two early said ‘Hey, we can do this’.

“It made us know they can bleed a little bit. We knew if we could get a lead with this crowd, with the fans here, it would give us a chance.”

“Our gameplan was to put the bat on the ball and make them make plays,” said Watertown senior Alec Whitlock, who pitched the first 3 1/3 innings and caught the final 3 2/3. “We did a good job with that. I think they set some records for strikeouts as a team. We didn’t strike out much. We followed the plan to perfection. We were never scared. We were never worried. We knew we were the best team on the field even before we stepped on the field.”

Pigeon Forge cut the margin in half in the third on a passed ball.

But Watertown took control with four in the bottom of the third on a two-run double by Kendal Bayse, a sacrifice fly by Watts and a gift score when, on a walk to Kaden Seay, Pigeon Forge’s pitcher was checking for a possible appeal from the first-base umpire on a checked swing and didn’t see the return throw from the catcher, opening the door for Fripp to sprint home for a 6-1 lead.

Pigeon Forge tried to come back with two in the top of the fourth on a passed ball and a bases-loaded walk to Kevin Fernandez against a tiring Whitlock.

Purvis, who built Mt. Juliet into a powerhouse with six state tournament appearances but fell short 2-1 in the Golden Bears’ lone finals appearance in 2009, waved in sophomore right-hander Charlie Mitchell from the bullpen. Whitlock didn’t get a break on a warm afternoon though as the Purple Tigers’ No. 1 catcher strapped on his gear and went behind the plate to catch Mitchell’s heater, which held Pigeon Forge to one hit and three walks while striking out four in the final 32/3 innings to get the win.

“Coach Purvis likes to beat me up,” said Whitlock, whose father, Wilson County Schools athletic director Chuck, went to high school with Purvis. “We’ve had a few doubleheaders where I’ve had to catch whole games and pitch whole games. It’s nothing really new.”

Watertown blew the game open again with four in the sixth as Wood walked and came around on Seay’s double.

After an infield hit by Whitlock and a strikeout, Mason Murrell singled in Seay. Kaiden West doubled in Whitlock’s courtesy runner Nathan Martinez before Bayse’s sacrifice fly to right plated Murrell.

West was caught in a rundown off second base in what turned out to be Watertown’s final out of the season.

It didn’t matter as Mitchell gave up a single and a walk in the top of the seventh before Dylan Loy’s fly ball to deep left field was caught by Fripp in foul territory to seal the 2022 Purple Tigers’ place in school and community history.

“I haven’t cried in a long time since my baby, Presley, was born,” Purvis said after his second season as Watertown’s head coach ended on the field where the Tigers’ endured two walk-off losses in their inaugural state tournament appearance one year ago. “Still numb. I’ve been chasing that sucker since 2000. It’s not the only thing you want to do. You want to develop young men.

“These kids are unbelievable. They fight and scratch and claw. I don’t know if we’re the most talented team, but we’re the best team in the state. It’s unbelievable.”

Prior to coming to Watertown in the summer of 2019 originally as an assistant to Lane Price, Purvis, a second baseman under Jerry Flatt at Mt. Juliet in the Class of 1989, was a senior infielder on Cumberland’s 2003 third-place NAIA World Series team. He was a Woody Hunt graduate assistant when the Bulldogs lost the ’05 championship game to Bellevue. He returned to his alma mater Mt. Juliet as an assistant to Gary McFarlin before taking the top job a year after the Golden Bears left the Mt. Juliet League Field on Lebanon Road for their new on-campus facility. Purvis built the facility and the team which played in it to be among the best in the state. When the new MJHS was built on what was then Curd Road in 2008, he had to build another facility while sending dozens of Bears to college baseball and three (not counting Stephen Pryor, who transferred from MJ to Friendship Christian after his freshman season) to the major leagues. One of those three is an MLB pitching coach and two other players are on the rise in the minors. He was even part of the Lady Bears’ 2005 girls’ basketball championship team as an assistant to Chris Fryer, but could never overcome the Farragut dynasty in the Class AAA state tournament, losing to the Admirals in his lone championship appearance. At Watertown, he and Price switched roles following the COVID-truncated 2020 season with Price becoming the pitching coach.

“When we fuss at them they respond,” Purvis said. “When we pat them on the butt, they don’t think they have the big head. They keep playing. They just respond. They like playing. They like being around each other.

“There were some struggles this year. We were 11-8. Now we’re what, 29-9? We won 18 of our last 19 games. We did the same thing last year. They just knew when to turn it on. They stayed together. I can’t say enough about last year’s three seniors. They could have easily not accepted me. Sometimes I’m hard to deal with sometimes. I love them. They know that. But they bought into everything and led us to state last year, which is unbelievable.”

It wasn’t always about baseball, either. When two young girls went missing earlier this spring, the team, returning from a road game, joined in the search for them. The girls were found safely.

Back to baseball, Watertown outhit Pigeon Forge 12-5. Bayse drove in three runs as he, Whitlock and Fripp each finished with three hits. Wood had two RBIs. Bayse, Seay and West doubled as the Tigers chased Mr. Baseball Riley Franklin from the mound after five innings.

“(Franklin) and the first baseman (Loy) had the two best stats of anybody in the state,” Purvis said. “We just this morning made the decision that he wasn’t going to beat us with the fastball and they went to offspeed and we got to him a little bit. We just put a little pressure on them like we try to do. Guys just stepped up and made plays and got big hits.”

Watertown High opened in 1911 and began playing football in the 1920s, not long after TSSAA was formed. The school fielded a baseball team in the ’30s, according to WHS graduate and local sports historian Ken Fountain. TSSAA began sponsoring a baseball championship in 1947. Baseball returned to WHS in 1988 even though there was no field or other facilities in the community. Hunt let the Tigers use Cumberland’s facilities for their inaugural practice where on the first day just three people were able to hit the ball — the bus driver, coach Bill Robinson and star player Bobby Brown, who went on to coach football at Lebanon and is now assistant principal at Walter J. Baird Middle School.

Watertown became a football power in the ’70s under Robinson and his father, Brownie, whose legacies are seen today with both of the town’s school football stadiums named for the family. The volleyball team reached that sport’s championship match in 2019 before losing to Summertown. Only Rayquan Verge struck TSSAA gold, winning the state triple jump in the spring of ’19. But communities don’t turn out to see accomplishments in individual sports. But they turn out for team sports.

When the new high school opened a decade ago, it brought facilities for soccer, tennis and wrestling, sports which weren’t played in the community before. It provided on-campus facilities for baseball and softball, which had played at city-owned Three Forks Park down Sparta Pike since the late ’80s. The community went wild for the Purple Tiger soccer program when it won the district in 2019. Ditto for Purvis’ baseball team in ’21 as the town turned out for postseason tournament games.

And like with football for generations, Tiger Nation travels well.

“It feels great,” Bayse said. “The whole community was here. The atmosphere was legendary. It was a great experience.”

Longtime mayor Mike Jennings has lived his whole life inside the Watertown city limits with the exception of his years in law school. The hard-core Tennessee Vol fan was asked which was bigger, this or UT’s 1998 national football championship.

“This would be because I know these kids,” Jennings said. “I know how close we’ve been in some other sports. As I’ve told one or two of them, it’ll mean more to them the older they get. It means a lot today, but I told them I’m 67 and it means a lot to me.

“I’m just so proud of these kids. It’s been a long time coming for this community. I’m proud for this community.”

“This community wanted this and I’m glad we got it for them,” Purvis said.

‘Big Game’ Bayse leads Purple Tigers to finalsMURFREESBORO — Watertown made more history Friday and it was Kendal Bayse who led the way on the mound and at the plate.

The senior right-hander may not have the nickname “Big Game Bayse”, but it would be fitting after he shut out Loretto 3-0, driving in the go-ahead run in the top of the sixth inning at Riverdale.

Bayse held the Mustangs to three hits and a two-out walk in the seventh while striking out seven. At the plate, he lined a two-out single to center field to score Bret Price with the game’s first run in the sixth inning. Brady Watts’ drive to center field went for a two-run double for insurance to send the Purple Tigers’ to their first baseball state championship game with a 28-9 record.

“Today’s unbelievable,” Watertown coach Mark Purvis said. “We knew going in with Zeb (Major, a possible “if necessary” pitcher who ended up not being needed) and (Bayse) going against them, the changeup and offspeed was going to be huge and it kind of just worked out that way. He just pitched great… Didn’t throw many (fastballs), just spotted it where he needed it, which he’s always done.

“Everytime we have a big game and he’s on the mound, he gets it done. Now he’ll tick you off early in the year when you don’t play a game that matters. He’ll get hit around a little bit. But when it’s big, he got the big hit, he just wants to win.”

“Coach always talked about key players,” Bayse said following Saturday’s championship victory. “Everybody’s going to have their chance to step up. I had my chances and luckily I stepped up and got the big hit when we needed it. Timely hits mean a lot.”

Saturday was a first for Watertown baseball. Rayquan Verge was the Purple Tigers’ only state champion in the triple jump in 2019. The Lady Tiger volleyball team finished runner up in the fall of ’19. The Purple Tigers had yet to win a TSSAA state team championship going into Saturday.

For Purvis, it was another shot at a crown which eluded him during his long tenure at Mt. Juliet where he took the Golden Bears to the 2009 Class AAA finals only to lose to the Farragut dynasty 2-1.

Mt. Juliet High teams have long benefitted from youth programs which have produced talent for the Golden Bears, including a handful of major-leaguers.

For years, Watertown had no youth baseball and youngsters had to travel to Lebanon to play Little League and Dixie Youth. With the Babe Ruth League shut down, players above age 12 have to play on travel teams during the summer.

“When I was at Mt. Juliet all those years and we came so close, in ’09 and then in ’10 we had one of the best teams in the state and we couldn’t get past Farragut,” Purvis said. “I always dreamed of winning it and always wanted to get another chance. I never dreamed it would be at Watertown, but I’m tickled to death that it is.

“These kids just bought in. They worked hard. They believe in each other. They’re just fun to be around. I just enjoy coming coming to see them everyday. They’re fun. It’s like a big family. It really is.”

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