With the possible exception of athletes who play football for the University of Alabama or women’s basketball at the University of Connecticut, being a part of an undefeated team at any level of competition is something very special. Few teams in the history of Fannin County have managed to run the gauntlet of an entire season of competition unscathed. The 1986 (1985-86 school year) Fannin County High School baseball team, however, managed to do just that. The lusty 18-0 regular season record posted by the 1986 has earned them a place in the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2017.
The athletic program at Fannin High was in a period of transition during the 1985-86 school term. The average daily attendance at Fannin High was smack on the border between an AAA and an AA classification. The level of competition faced in the two classes is quite significant. Athletic teams at the school competed in the Class AAA division beginning with the 1978-79 year and remained at that level through the 1984-85 school term. It was an uphill struggle for the athletic teams at Fannin to be competitive at the AAA level. The football teams, for example, posted an overall record of 10-58-2 over the seven year period.
Sometime during the 1984-85 school term, the decision was made to drop from the AAA to the AA level. The powers that be decided that the 1985-86 teams, including the 1986 baseball team would not be eligible for any region crowns nor would they be allowed to participate in region tournaments during that year. The 1986 Fannin baseball team did not let that bother them, however, as they ran roughshod over every team on a schedule that included Copper Basin, Gilmer County, Pickens County, Fairmount, Rabun County, Towns County, Redbud, Lumpkin County and Union County. Most of those opponents were the same schools that had appeared on Fannin County schedules in the past.
The 1986 baseball team was characterized by sound fundamental baseball play, outstanding pitching and defense, timely hitting and a sizeable helping of good team chemistry. Brad Mitchell, the starting catcher, describes the team as “very businesslike — everyone knew their job and everyone did their job”. He continues recall that the team had a good understanding of the game and that demonstrative celebrations during competition were kept to a minimum. There was much cause for celebration during the season but Brad relates that the celebrations at away games were postponed until each player had taken their seats on the bus and after the bus had cleared the immediate area of competition. Then shortstop Kurt Warren, a slick fielder who also hit .367, would crank up his cassette player to maximum volume and play ‘Bad to the Bone’ by George Thorogood and the Destroyers. In homage to ZZ Top, another pop group of the era, the team began to refer to the 1986 season as their own version of the ‘Eliminator Tour’.
Yogi Berra is credited with saying that baseball is 50% hitting and 50% pitching — and the other half is defense. The 1986 Fannin pitching staff was led by starters righty Jeff Gray, who posted 10 victories, Chris Chastain with 5 wins and lefty Jimmy Nichols who was the winning pitcher in the remaining 3 games. Bullpen duty was primarily the responsibility of Rex Mashburn.
Defensively, the Rebels generally lined up with Howie Bruce at first base, Tim Lents at second, music aficionado Kurt Warren at short with Dennis McClure holding down the hot corner when Jeff Gray was pitching. Jeff moved over to third when he was not on the mound. Starting flycatchers were Shan Culpepper in left, Jeff Warrenfells in center and Sonny Mashburn in right. As previously reported, Brad Mitchell, who also quarterbacked the Rebel football team, was the starting catcher. Valuable backups were Joey Breeden at first, Dewayne Thomas at second, Richie Walker who saw a lot of action in the outfield, along with freshmen Cole Staton and Bryan Davis.
Offensively the Rebels were a very balanced club boasting a team batting average of .311. Individual stats showed Sonny McFarland leading the team in hitting with a .407 average, followed closely by Jeff Gray at .382, Kurt Warren at .367, Tim Lents at .339, Jeff Warrenfells at .333 and Howie Bruce with an average of .328. The team also recorded an on base percentage of .519. Other notable offensive numbers that were school records at the time were runs scored in one season at 177, most hits at 173 and most runs scored in one inning at 11 in two different games. Jeff Gray led the team in RBIs with 25, home runs with 4, hits at 26 and 17 stolen bases. Kurt Warren led the team in runs scored with 21, Howie Bruce in doubles with 7 and Shan Culpepper and Kurt Warren led in sacrifices with 5 each.
On the defensive side, the team had 7 double plays. On the mound Jeff Gray posted an ERA of 1.29 with 72 strikeouts, Chris Chastain had an ERA of 1.58 and 62 strikeouts and Jimmy Nichols had 45 strikeouts and an unbelievable ERA of .80. Reliever Rex Mashburn struck out 7 enemy batters and had an ERA of 3.36.
The most common adjective that the players use to describe their group is ‘close-knit’. ‘Camaraderie’ is another word heard when the 1986 baseball Rebels look back on their great season.
In case you have been wondering, the Coach of the 1986 Fannin County Rebel Baseball team was David Lunsford. Coach Lunsford gets good marks from contemporaries for his baseball knowledge and coaching methods.
The Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame is proud to tell anyone within hearing distance about the outstanding achievements of the 1986 Fannin County High Boys of Summer who did so much to make everyone in the County very proud of them and their record.