As the 2011 edition of the Thomson High School Diamond Dogs prepared for a new season, fans had to wonder what they would do for an encore. The 2010 team was the best in Thomson High history, compiling a record of 27-6 before losing to eventual state champion Columbus in the state semifinals. Four seniors had graduated, including cornerstone third baseman Cody Ewest. It was unfathomable that 2010 could be matched.
Ten years ago this weekend the season opened with a 10-2 win over Evans and 10-4 defeat of South Effingham. The team squeaked by Aquinas 3-2 before losing to Lakeside 5-4. The next day the opponent would be a strong Florida team, Palatka, in a game played at Grovetown High School. Would the Bulldogs rebound after a tough loss against an unfamiliar opponent? They did by a score of 13-3.
Region play started with a 9-2 win over ARC and a 1-0 nail biter over Harlem but the next day in Statesboro, the team merely went through the motions in a 7-5 loss to the Blue Devils. After that game, I recall coaches Jason Osborn and Aaron Hall being very discouraged about the team’s demeanor. They sensed that overconfidence had set in because Statesboro was a team that this Thomson squad should have beaten, but they simply failed to compete.
That game was on March 12. What happened over the next two-plus months was remarkable. The team went on a 22-game winning streak, which is extraordinary in baseball. Among the wins was redemption against Statesboro, 11-0, and squeakers against Westside, 4-3 and Harlem, 5-4. Another big win was a repeat victory over Evans, 9-7. Thomson would get by a talented Cross Creek team on prom morning, 4-1 in the first game of the region playoffs.
It was another electric, but now routine night on White Oak Road as Harlem, for the third time during the season, was the opponent in the Region 3-AAA championship game. Thomson took a 2-0 lead in the first inning and exploded for seven runs in the second on the way to an 11-3 win. Will Tankersley led the attack with two homeruns and Phillip Anderson, who had returned after playing his junior season at Lee County, went 3 for 4 and scored three runs. Ace pitcher Abe Cartledge went the distance on the mound, striking out twelve.
Coming out of the radio both located above the Harlem dugout after the game, I overheard Harlem coach Jimmie Lewis tell his players not to get down that Thomson was a great team and deserved to win. That is high praise coming from a veteran coach of Lewis’ stature. As the state playoffs loomed one question became evident. Was Thomson good enough to win a state championship?
Thomson swept through the first three rounds of the state playoffs but not without some tension. After beating Worth County 10-0 and 14-3, Eastside of Covington came to town for round two. In a slugfest, Eastside ripped four homeruns to Thomson’s three, but the Bulldogs held on 12-11. Anderson took the mound in game two and pitched a 11-0 shutout.
Cobb County, infamous for great players, would send Allatoona to Thomson for round three.
Allatoona High School was only in its fourth year of existence, but their roster was ripe with veterans of the famous Cobb County youth leagues, a pipeline of countless future major league prospects. Perhaps they were bedazzled by the ride through the countryside because they were lifeless in game one. Thomson mercy ruled them 12-2. Leadoff man Juicy Brown hit a homerun and scored three runs. Nick Rau also homered. Cartledge struck out seven.
The light came on for the Buccaneers in game two. They took a 4-0 lead in the third inning. Thomson would not score until the fifth, making it 4-2. Anderson was then in the process of retiring thirteen straight hitters. A Cartledge homer in the sixth made it a one-run game. Thomson tied it in the seventh on a Tankersley sacrifice fly, scoring Jesse Usry, who had drawn a leadoff walk, but Thomson stranded two more runners. Cody Corbitt scored the winning run in the eighth inning for a 5-4 win, sending Thomson back to Columbus.
The Diamond Dogs had pulled off an unfathomable encore. That bad day in Statesboro may have been the impetus, but who knows. Due to a quirk in realignment, Columbus’ region changed so the playoff bracket gave them home field advantage once again. They could have played anywhere, and it would not have mattered. Columbus was far superior to Thomson’s best team ever and swept the series 6-0 and 16-0. They had four SEC recruits and were coached by a legend, Bobby Howard. In the middle of three consecutive state titles, Columbus knew how good Thomson was this time, and came to play.
Thomson finished with a record of 28-4. I dare say there have been three-year spells when the school did not win 28 games combined. Fifty-five wins in two seasons was staggering. Head coach Jason Osborn, who was Thomson’s most successful softball coach ever, was lured to Lumpkin County to coach that sport. He later returned to the area and won a baseball state title at Greenbrier in 2015.
Members of the 2011 Thomson team other than the aforementioned were Josh Jones, Hank Doupe`, Austin Whitehouse, Hunter Bragg, Trevor Stephens, Brett Jenkins, Andy Grimaud, Chad Austin, Caleb Washington, Nic Wood and Austin Cooper. Their success was due to talent, diligent coaching, perseverance, and hard work but not those alone. A never-before seen commitment to baseball was made by the school administration and the community appreciated it and got behind the program. It was a perfect storm of a rare phenomenon, everyone buying in with no regard to who got the credit.
Gene Walker is a retired educator who lives in Thomson. His column, “Sports Talk,” appears in the weekly editions of The McDuffie Progress. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.