Science Hill’s baseball team may have to scramble to stay on top in the Big Eight Conference while Unicoi County should have the lead step in the Three Rivers Conference.
Spring sports began in earnest Monday, and in just seven weeks baseball will dive headfirst into district action.
Here’s a look at how things stack up for the Big Eight and Three Rivers in baseball:
With three good arms at the forefront of the pitching staff, the Hilltoppers figure to be in solid shape for conference play.
Leading the way is senior right-hander Will Craig, a fixture on the staff for a fourth season. Craig has signed with Wake Forest University.
“He did a good job in the offseason,” said Science Hill head coach Ryan Edwards. “I think he will be a more durable guy, like a 6-7 innings guy once we get into warm weather.
“I think he can be a guy we count on to finish what he starts. We expect him to give us a chance to win against anybody.”
Other top starters are senior Reed Hayes and junior Daniel Sweeney.
“Reed had several good starts last year, and Daniel got a few as a sophomore,” said Edwards. “They have some innings under their belts.”
Leading the way at the plate will be Craig, who will play third base when he’s not pitching. Craig is a legitimate power threat, and will be counted on to produce runs in the middle of the lineup.
Other key hitters are Hayes (cf) and senior shortstop Kyle Wilson, who moved from second base last year.
“He handled it well in the preseason,” said Edwards.
Also expected to produce are junior outfielder J.T. Torbett and defensive standout Tucker McPherson (2b).
“We have some guys with a few varsity at-bats, or they are coming off a successful junior-varsity season,” said Edwards. “We’ve narrowed it down to 12-13 guys, but it’s pretty wide open.
“I feel good about the guys we’ve got back. They understand what it takes to win.
“Our goal every year is to get to the state tournament. We’ve missed it two years in a row, but I definitely think we can try to make a run at it.”
The Trailblazers expect to put the bat on the ball, and there is strength at the top of the pitching rotation. Therefore, expectations are high.
“I think it all depends on the depth of the pitching staff,” said Boone head coach Rob Hoover. “If we get something out of those 3-4-5 guys, that’s where Science Hill, D-B and South separate from the rest of the league. If we develop pitching depth, I think we can compete in the top half of the league.”
At the top of the rotation are junior left-hander Daniel Cox and senior right-hander Daniel Wagner.
“Those two guys threw a lot of innings last year,” said Hoover. “Everybody else is relatively new.”
Mason Pugh (rh, Jr.) and Daniel Lowe (rh, Sr.) are also in the starting mix. Hoover said senior Jacob Littleton will fill the role of closer.
Also in the pitching mix are senior Trey Combest, sophomore left-hander Brandon Davis, and Taylor Smith.
As for the every-day lineup, Smith leads the way. The senior all-region selection will bat No. 3 in the lineup and play right field.
Other key hitters include Littleton (ss), Cox (cf) and Dustin Chandler. Cox is the leadoff hitter while Chandler will be limited to designated hitter because of a shoulder injury.
“I’m surprised we haven’t hit as well so far,” said Hoover. “But I think the more we play and when the weather improves, it will come. I think it will be one of our strengths.”
The Pioneers are young and a little inexperienced, but not without hope.
“We lost nine seniors, so we will be awfully young,” said head coach Scott Hagy. “We’re trying to not make any excuses, and we’re still going to play. We will be capable of getting stronger as the year goes on, but we may take some lumps early.”
With no seniors on the pitching staff, youth is the key word for Crockett.
Junior right-hander Austin Casey leads the way, and he’s backed by four sophomores: Isaac Barkley, Chase Miller, Jeremy Collins and Heath Ricker.
“I hope several of them are ready to assert themselves;” said Hagy. “Isaac and Chase both got a couple of varsity wins as freshmen.”
At the plate, John Long is expected to be a key player. The junior second baseman will likely hit in the No. 3 spot in the order.
Barkley is also a key hitter, and he will play somewhere in the field as a super utility type.
“He’s good enough to play anywhere,” said Hagy.
Other important pieces of the puzzle are Zach Shell and leadoff man Luke Hopson. Shell is a senior third baseman while Hopson is a junior center fielder.
Also in the mix are Casey (dh), Miller (1b, 3b) and Ricker (of, ss).
It starts with a deep and talented pitching staff, headed by left-hander Jonathan Davis.
“He really had a good year last season,” said head coach Charlie Baxter. “He got a lot of quality starts. He’s just a very good left-handed pitcher. He throws a fastball, curveball, changeup and mixes up his pitches. Him and (Austin) Green are around the plate all the time.”
Green is a right-handed junior, who will form a good one-two punch with Davis. Also in the pitching mix are senior William McInturff and juniors Adam Hensley, Connor Simpson and Ethan Rice.
At the plate, the Blue Devils expect to be able to put the bat on the ball consistently. Leading the way is Rice (lf).
“He’s off to a really good start,” said Baxter. “I expect him to be one of the better hitters along with Green (rf).”
Other keys at the plate include junior Ryan Lingerfelt (3b), and senior leadoff hitter Austin Garrabrant (cf).
Also in the mix are Tayor Lefever (ss, Sr.), Michael Kiernan (2b, Sr.) and Hunter Burnett (c, Jr.).
Overall, Baxter said he expects good things from his team.
“I think it will be one of the better pitching staffs we’ve had in a while,” said Baxter. “I’m excited about the season. I think we can play with whoever is on the field. I’m excited about the possibilities of this team, and how far they can go.”
With Middle Tennessee State University commitment Thomas Miller behind the plate, and a couple of good arms at the top of the rotation, the Cyclones figure to make a little noise in the league.
Miller gives the Cyclones a good presence behind the plate, and also carries a good stick. He batted .449 last season with 28 RBIs.
And if his defense and hitting aren’t enough, Miller will also remove the catcher’s gear and log some relief innings.
On the mound, Austin Smith and Dylan Richardson lead the way. Smith is a senior right-hander who went 6-2 last year while Richardson is a sophomore left-hander with a high ceiling.
Also in the mound mix are Quincy Jackson (rh, Sr.), Dylan Tolley (lf, So.), Tyler Nichols (rh, So.), Caleb Armstrong (rh, So.) and junior Chris Range.
Complementing Miller at the plate are Smith (of), Tony Ward (1b, Sr.), Jackson (of, Sr.) and Chris Lanthorn (2b, Sr.). Ward is a third-year starter.
Also in the mix is Eric Carter, a junior shortstop. Sophomore Hunter Hodges will be at third base.
With pitcher Ryan Mahala back in the fold, the Longhorns should be a tough opponent when he’s on the mound.
“We pretty much expect the same thing as last year,” said head coach Pete Pavusek. “When he signed a college deal (with Milligan) I was a little skeptical, but he seems as dedicated and devoted as ever. We’re hoping for big things.”
Mahala, who pitched Johnson County to the sectional in 2012, will be complemented on the mound by seniors Jon Vannoy, Andy Woods and Jacob Henson, who is a left-hander.
“We have a lot more pitching depth than last year,” said Pavusek. “Jon Vannoy came out of nowhere, and he’s gotten a lot more confident.”
At the plate, the ‘Horns will count on senior first baseman Daniel Helm to lead the way. Other important pieces are Judd Hammons (ss, Sr.) and Henson (cf). After that, Pavusek said the Longhorns have some guys who put the ball in play.
“As a team, the boys have more confidence,” said Pavusek. “And I don’t see overconfidence. We feel we’ve got a few things to prove.”
A young pitching staff and a limited amount of power could be cause for concern, but head coach Caleb Moore said his team should be ready to compete.
“I feel like it’s a three-step process,” said Moore, who begins his second season. “You learn a lot in the first year, then you compete in the second year, and then you start winning those close games in the third year. You have to keep that competitive edge for seven innings.”
Leading the way on the mound are a pair of sophomores: righty Correy Garland and left-hander Hunter Townsend. Also in the mix are right-handed seniors Sam Allie and Conner Campbell.
“We’re pretty young, but we have guys who throw strikes and keep us in the game,” said Moore. “That’s all we ask of them. I’m definitely excited about the youth of the staff, and it should help us tremendously in the future.”
Leading the way at the plate is sophomore shortstop Justin Maupin. He is one of the Warriors’ top returning hitters along with Campbell (lf) and Allie (rf).
Also in the mix is a trio of seniors: Colton Haun (3b), Camen Wilder (2b) and catcher Chance Street.
With Ryan Flick in the middle of the lineup, the Patriots figure to be a threat. Flick, a first baseman who has signed with Tennessee Tech, hit 12 home runs last year and was chosen as the league’s player of the year.
Also in the every-day lineup are Will Ellis (c, Sr.), Austin White (ss, Sr.) and junior second baseman Robbie Love (2b, Jr.).
Leading the way on the mound will be senior Jordan Jackson. Another mound factor is junior Brady McGrew.