Commencement exercises for J.J. Kelly High School’s Class of 1982 were held on June 9 at 8 p.m. with Andrew Spence from nearby King College serving as the guest speaker.
With all due respect to the doctor who was a professor of education at the school in Bristol, Tennessee, now known as King University, but many of the 2,000 or so folks who jammed the bleachers at Carroll Dale Stadium that evening probably would have preferred hearing what one kid in particular wearing a cap and gown had to say.
Scott Church had certainly brought the folks from Wise, Virginia, to their feet in that same venue and other stadiums, gyms and fields in Southwest Virginia in the preceding months. Of the 124 teenagers receiving diplomas, he might have been the most popular and was the big man on campus so to speak.
The 6-foot-2 Church was the quarterback of the Indians’ state title-winning football team, a well-rounded guard in hoops and the sure-handed shortstop for a baseball squad that won a second consecutive VHSL Group A state championship. A true hometown hero.
The song “Heat of the Moment” by the English rock group Asia was a hit tune at the time and there’s a line John Wetton belts out in that classic that goes, “And now you find yourself in ‘82.”
Forty years ago, Scott Church found himself having a ball playing ball.
“It was a great time,” Church said. “Not only for me, but our entire school. Our senior class was real close and we still are today. Our girls tennis team was very successful and we had a state champ wrestler [Tim Baker]. It seemed like after that football season, the atmosphere in school became electric. … School was a fun place to be.”
Church later played baseball for four seasons at East Tennessee State University and had a stint in the minor league system of the Philadelphia Phillies, adventures on the diamond which provided him enough stories to tell for days.
Yet, one moment from yesteryear that he’s been asked to recount time and time again was a sequence that occurred in a state semifinal football game on Nov. 28, 1981, and remains one of the most memorable – and clutch – plays in Southwest Virginia gridiron lore.
J.J. Kelly trailed Parry McCluer 14-13 late in the fourth quarter with the clock ticking down and facing a 4th-and-16 situation at the PM 28-yard line.
“I had just been sacked on a bootleg,” Church said. “I wasn’t really nervous and I don’t think any of us were really. We believed in each other and we weren’t even supposed to be there.”
Church was cool as could be in the heat of that moment.
“He said in the huddle, ‘OK, here we go,’ as if no doubt,” said Lynn Sturgill, a sophomore running back on the team.
Church instructed his receivers to go deep.
“Knowing I was going to Mike Osborne all the way,” Church said. “He had the best hands you’ve ever seen. I dropped straight back and threw it up to Mike.”
Osborne got the best of 6-foot-3 defensive back Eric Martin of Parry McCluer for a 28-yard scoring strike with 2:14 remaining as a one-point deficit turned into a five-point advantage.
“The DB jumped a little too soon and the ball landed in Mike’s hands,” Church said. “Our fans on that end of the end zone piled on top of Mike. There was still time left and flags went flying everywhere. Close to 6,000 fans were there I’d say.”
Parry McCluer failed to capitalize on its last possession.
Final score: J.J. Kelly 19, Parry McCluer 14.
The following week the Indians showed they were no fluke by dominating the Fluvanna Flying Flucos for a 25-17 victory at Virginia Tech’s Lane Stadium in what was one of the coldest VHSL state championship games ever played.
“Oh man, was it cold,” Church said. “The game-time temperature was around 25 degrees with that Blacksburg wind.”
Church had two TD runs and a touchdown pass to Osborne in his final football game as J.J. Kelly capped an 11-2 season and a surprising run to a state championship
The Indians were pegged for a third-place finish in the Lonesome Pine District coaches poll and weren’t even ranked in the Bristol Herald Courier’s preseason prognostication of the top 10 teams in Southwest Virginia.
Kelly was just 3-2 at the midway point of the season before Al Stecker’s squad hit their stride and continued to get better each week.
The Indians weren’t even assured a playoff berth until after a 47-7 win over J.I. Burton in the final game of the regular season. When Appalachia and Powell Valley battled to a 15-15 deadlock that same evening, it gave the Indians the LPD title and a postseason reservation.
“Norton’s PA announcer put the radio broadcast of the game on the intercom,” Church said. “Our players, cheerleaders, band and fans gathered on the field to listen as they ended in a tie. We were district champs and what a celebration we had.”
A couple of weeks later J.J. Kelly became Region D champs with a win over Garden and then in December the state crown was secured.
The good times continued for Church.
The guy who finished with 16 touchdown passes, was a pretty good passer and scorer on the basketball court as well and scored 14 points in his final hoops game, a 75-68 loss to Appalachia in the semifinals of the Lonesome Pine District tournament.
Those LPD battles were something else across all sports.
“Every place you played was a packed house,” Church said. “Haven’t seen an atmosphere like that around anywhere since. I had a few close friends in every town, but most wanted to tear your damn head off when the game started. It was intense every game and no gimmes anywhere.”
The only gimmes were usually when J.J. Kelly stepped on the baseball field each spring.
The Indians were 40-1 in going back-to-back in 1981 and 1982 with the only loss being a 5-4 setback to Northeast Tennessee powerhouse Science Hill during that span.
“Yes, baseball at J.J. Kelly was special,” Church said. “We took pride in how we practiced, how we looked and how we played the game. Teams before us laid the groundwork and we just picked it up. We got off the bus wanting to intimidate the other team. [Assistant] Coach [Robert] Stinson always made sure we had our shirts tucked in, equipment ready and everyone on the same page. Then we would head into the stadium single file. … We were very confident. We had a lot of teams beat before we got on the field.”
Scott Church was a man of many seasons, but the sport played in the spring was his thing.
“Baseball was something we did year-round in Wise,” Church said. “We spent a lot of summer days working on the field in the morning then groundballs and hitting in the afternoon. … Mom would drop you off in the morning and pick you up after work.”
With legendary head coach Mack Shupe calling the shots and ace left-handed pitcher Doug Bates dominating the opposition, Church was a sure thing in the infield.
“Scott was one of the smoothest shortstops I’ve ever seen,” Lynn Sturgill said. “He and Jeff Carter could turn the double play as good as anyone.”
Church hit .465 as a senior.
“Our high school was richly blessed with a ton of really good athletes from the late-70s to the late-80s and Scott was certainly one of the best of them,” said teammate Scott Slemp. “He defined what an all-around baseball player is. A team leader, a guy making a big play on defense, a guy coming up with a big two-out hit, a guy who would turn a routine single into a double because he busted it out of the box. …He always seemed to handle the pressure moments with ease.”
J.J. Kelly claimed the 1982 Group A state baseball title with a 3-2, nine-inning win over Essex as Bates outdueled Kirk Thornton of the Trojans. Bobby Tiller scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning on an error.
Church was 0-for-4 in a game played at a dump of a facility in Bowling Green, Virginia.
“Probably the worst field we had ever played on,” Church said. “No fence around the field, a light pole on the field between left and center. Half the lights weren’t working. And probably the best pitcher we had seen all year. I had a terrible game, but senior Joe Linkous had a big hit and of course, Doug Bates had another great pitching performance.”
Church continued to find success at East Tennessee State.
“I had a great time at ETSU. I always say it was the best six years of my life,” Church said with a laugh. “When I signed they had just gotten beat in the NCAA regionals. I didn’t get to play much my freshman year. I think I had three at-bats and about 25 innings in the field. After my freshman year they cut the baseball budget in half, the head coach [Charley Lodes] left and half the team transferred or didn’t come back.
“We struggled for a couple of years. My senior year we started competing again. I made lifelong friends while I was there. We had a big group of freshmen that were close and we still are today. We continue to gather each spring to reminisce.”
Church hit .381 with 11 doubles, eight stolen bases, 31 runs scored an 27 RBIs in his final season with the Buccaneers as he earned All-Southern Conference honors.
“He was good defensively and he also had a good bat,” said Billy Patton, Church’s college teammate. “He was one of the leaders of the team; a really good teammate who got along with everyone.”
In other words, it was the same old Scott Church.
“What sticks out to me about him was his steadiness,” said Mike Morrow, a second baseman for the Bucs and Church’s double-play partner. “He didn’t get rattled and that kept us anchored in the infield.”
The Philadelphia Phillies selected Church in the 40th round of the 1986 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft and assigned him to their short-season affiliate in Bend, Oregon. He battled some injury issues and hit .172 in 38 games that summer in the Northwest League.
“What a beautiful place,” Church said. “Snowcap mountains that could be seen from our stadium. Met some great people. We had some long bus rides. The closest team we played was a three-hour ride. We had two road trips where we were on the road for two weeks at a time. … I lived with four other guys in a two bedroom apartment. The five of us bought a car for $500, drove it for three months on 30-day tags then sold it for $250 before we left.”
His teammates in Bend included left-handed pitcher Garland Kiser (Sullivan Central), future two-time National League All-Star Andy Ashby and utility man Steve Scarsone, all of whom made the majors.
“Garland threw the ball well for just coming out of high school, Ashby had a real live arm and didn’t always know where it was going and Scarsone was a consistent hitter and defensive player,” Church said. “I had a great time traveling the Northwest.”
He settled back home in Southwest Virginia and has been a longtime teacher at L.F. Addington Middle School. His daughters, Abby and Annie, were members of the juggernaut girls basketball program at Wise County Central and had a combined five state titles between them.
They were winners, just like their dad.
Now, we find ourselves in 2022 and looking back not many dudes can say they had as good of a school year as Scott Church did in 1981-82.
“I think there were a lot of elementary school kids that grew up watching our high school teams and wanting to be like Scott Church when they arrived at J.J. Kelly,” Scott Slemp said.
Now, for a look at high school baseball moments which occurred this week in history:
April 3, 1959
Dickie Lewis pitched a one-hitter to highlight Holston Valley’s 6-3 win over Mary Hughes. … Doug Vincill struck out 16 in pitching a one-hitter and also blasted a home run in Valley Institute’s 3-1 victory over Hamilton of Mendota. … Winning pitcher Roy Blankenship aided his own cause with a home run as Ketron collected a 4-2 win over Sullivan.
April 2, 1963
Kenny Powers pitched a three-hitter and Danny Hall hammered out four hits in Coeburn’s 15-1 annihilation of Appalachia. … Glen Graybeal pitched a four-hitter and Steve Allison tallied two hits in Holston Valley’s 4-1 victory over Mary Hughes. … Lebanon posted a 3-1 win over Honaker as Tony Yates tossed a two-hitter.
April 1, 1977
Mark Cunningham hit two home runs as Virginia High rocked Richlands, 17-4. Scott Maiden, Mark Worley, Phil Weatherly and Jeff Campbell also went yard for the Bearcats. … Brad Strong had three hits at the plate and struck out 10 on the mound in Tazewell’s 6-3 win over Abingdon. … Sullivan Central received three hits apiece from Mike Bowery and Greg Tunnell in an 11-1 trouncing of Elizabethton.
April 2, 1988
David Greear had two hits in each game as Tennessee High swept a doubleheader from Elizabethton by scores of 8-4 and 8-1. … Danis Simmons and Lee Moulse combined to pitch a no-hitter as J.J. Kelly blasted J.I. Burton, 14-0. … John Johnson pitched a six-hitter and also hit a home run in Sullivan East’s 11-4 victory over Virginia High. Robbie O’Neal added three hits and three RBIs for the Patriots.
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