MURFREESBORO – Luke Payne didn’t get to pitch much throughout his high school career.
The Goodpasture left-hander suffered a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his elbow during the team’s first preseason game in 2022 and missed his entire junior year, which ended with the Cougars earning the Division II-A state title.
Payne, a Tennessee signee, wanted to contribute more as a senior.
Despite a setback earlier this spring, he was healthy when Goodpasture’s state tournament run rolled around. He delivered his best outing of the season on Wednesday – five scoreless innings with nine strikeouts in an 8-0 win over Silverdale – to help the Cougars avoid elimination and advance to Thursday’s title game.
Goodpasture (36-6) couldn’t overcome Northpoint Christian in that game, losing 6-5, but the Cougars might not have gotten there without Payne’s performance.
“I’ve just kind of been grinding, doing my throwing program and doing what the doctors are telling me,” he said. “I was finally able to get back, and I loved it. It was fun. It was a good way to end my high school career. I’m just blessed.”
It’s easy to wonder what Payne would have accomplished at Goodpasture had he not gotten hurt.
In limited action this season, he held a spotless 0.00 ERA and 30 strikeouts across 17 innings. His fastball sits at 92-93 mph, according to Goodpasture pitching coach Brian Winders, and moves so much that opponents struggle to hit it squarely.
Payne saved his best for last on the biggest stage.
“Every time he’s gone out there, he’s performed at a higher level,” Goodpasture head coach Jim Carter said. “It’s going to be really fun for us to get to watch and see what he does. I’m so grateful that he and his family were able to experience that (Wednesday) in getting us to (Thursday).”
Payne’s road back to full health wasn’t easy.
It took time to diagnose the injury in the first place. That required a visit to noted surgeon Dr. E. Lyle Cain at Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center in Alabama, which finally gave Payne the dreaded news: he needed Tommy John surgery.
“I had a screw in my elbow from when I was 12 and broke a growth plate,” Payne said. “Gosh, it was terrible. And then last year the screw broke. It was a freak thing. Whenever it broke, it sliced the UCL. It was crazy. I didn’t really know what was happening.”
After a successful surgery in April 2022, Payne shifted his focus to making sure his 12 to 15-month recovery timeline stayed on track.
He woke up as early as 5:30 a.m. for daily workouts, went through physical therapy while Goodpasture practiced in the afternoons and sometimes worked out again after that.
Even a scar tissue setback early this season couldn’t keep him off the mound when the playoffs arrived.
“He did all that he needed to do to get back. You have to tip your cap to him,” Winders said. “This (senior) class means so much to Luke. He was going to make sure he was part of this, and he did everything he could. It was a fun ride.”
Carter and Winders both believe Payne’s best pitching days are ahead of him.
He plans to be roommates with Goodpasture teammate and back-to-back DII-A Mr. Baseball winner Carson Rucker in Knoxville, as long as Rucker isn’t selected in this summer’s MLB Draft.
“I can’t wait,” Payne said. “(Tennessee) was probably one of my favorite schools growing up. To be able to go there and play baseball and maybe get to room with Carson… It’s a dream come true.”