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Ron Dempsey, Dean Baggett and Gary Swartz have coached some of the biggest names in area baseball during the past three decades.
College stars such as Paul Hoilman, Matt Rice, Nick Crowe, Brandon Crowe and Dylan Pratt began to shine while playing “travel ball” or Babe Ruth for Dempsey, Baggett or Swartz.
But the veteran coaches had their most gratifying season this year with an 11-under team, Edge Athletics, which won a USSSA Class AA World Series in Kingsport in July. It topped a treasured season during which they’ve crossed paths with the Crowes, who now have young children, and watched former player Will Little umpire a Major League Baseball game.
World Series tournaments are more regional, and several of the teams were local. But teams came from Georgia, Memphis and Little Rock, Ark., among other locales, and the field was good enough to help the Athletics finish with a No. 5 national ranking.
The Athletics avoided elimination three straight games after starting the tournament’s last day with a loss to the DHYS Vipers (Decatur, Ga.). The Edge atoned by handing the Vipers a pair of one-run losses (5-4 and 2-1) in the final two games.
“I think on that final day we trailed every game, but they never quit,” said Swartz, who played basketball at David Crockett in the mid-70s. “We preached all year, ‘If it goes bad early, you can’t throw your hands up and quit.’ And we had some of that early (in the year).
“We’ve had a bunch of good kids. We had the Crowe brothers and Kirklands and Ryan McKinney. Over the years we had some kids that were competitors, and that’s what we’ve tried to pass on to these kids.”
Dempsey, who played baseball at Jonesborough High School, said the Series title was their biggest coaching triumph.
“It was (the top highlight),” Dempsey said. “It’s the first time we ever won the World Series. We took Nick Crowe and a really good 13-year-old team and finished second in the state. Nick played with a broken hand. Boy, Nick played hard. We’ve had several seconds in state tournaments.”
Judging by some of the names, the Athletics surely have future stars. Peyton Whitson was the pitching MVP and second baseman Jaylen Scott made what might’ve been a tournament-saving play in the losers’ bracket final.
“Jaylen’s kinned to Tary Scott that was in the Red Sox organization,” Swartz said. “Peyton would be some kin to (former MLB pitcher) Ed Whitson.”
Jaylen’s fielding play came with The Edge trailing in an elimination game. He went far to his left for a ground ball and turned a would-be two-run hit into an inning-ending out.
“He was closer to second than he was to first base when it was hit,” Swartz said, “and he almost fielded it behind the first baseman and did a little side flip and threw that runner out. That was one of the key moments as far as turning the tide for us.
“Peyton was just about unhittable. He threw eight innings (in the tournament) and I don’t think he gave up an earned run, and they probably didn’t get more than a couple of hits on him. He’s gonna be something special down the road.”
Catcher Dylan Wagner pitched in the championship game.
“We didn’t throw him near as much as he deserved to be thrown this year because he was so critical behind the plate for us,” Swartz said. “Dylan was voted defensive player of the World Series, and he hit .464 for the year.”
The Athletics went 37-15 this year. Wagner was 8-for-15 in the World Series, as was Sean Hayes. Leadoff batter Conner Hyatt was 9-for-18.
“He was solid from the get-go,” Swartz said. “He played great defense in left field, excellent base-runner.”
Center fielder Dakota Wagner led the team with 44 RBIs this season. Nick Copenhaver hit seven of the Athletics’ 12 home runs and was second with a .471 season average.
“And he made some good plays in right field,” Baggett said.
Wyatt Rush hit a team-high .516 (47-for-91). He continued to excel after his father’s job forced a move to Charlotte. Wyatt stayed behind with family and friends. However, Little League All-Stars limited Rush’s USSSA World Series.
“We had him one day – not the last day – and he had four hits in five at-bats and scored four runs,” Swartz said. “He led us from day one all the way through the season – a great third baseman. I’ve seen him make some plays. I don’t care how hard you hit it at him, he wouldn’t run from nothing. And he took several in the chest down there.”
A late pickup was Alex Elmore, who drew the praise of all three coaches with his clutch pitching during impromptu duty on the final day. Also performing well on the mound were Jared Adkins, Landon Slemp, Hayes and Scott. Pitching depth is critical, as 85-pitch counts exhaust five-day periods.
Other members of the Athletics were Chris Godfrey and Jack Skole, who Baggett said was a year younger than most of his teammates and missed the World Series.
Swartz, who played at Crockett for Sonny Miller and Hobart Powell, also umpires Little League Baseball. So he was especially excited to travel to Baltimore with his wife Valerie, Baggett and Dempsey to watch their former Sherwood Chevrolet player, Little, umpire an MLB game.
Baggett can tell you that, after calling in Cincinnati this weekend, Little’s ensuing six assignments are series at Kansas City, New York (Yankees vs. Detroit), Atlanta (Braves-Phillies), Baltimore, Cincinnati and Tampa.?“I’m happy for Will. He’s smart and he’s always been a hard worker,” Baggett said.
Baggett played for Dennis Greenwell, Bill Gardner and Bernie Young during respective stops at Science Hill (class of 1979), Walters State and Bristol College. He was also part of exciting victories and received invaluable instruction while playing for Pappy Crowe’s summer-ball teams in the late ‘70s.
“I’ve been around baseball all my life,” Baggett said, “and this was something special. There aren’t too many kids who can say they’ve won a World Series. It was our first. We were thrilled to death.”
It was particularly pleasing winning for Edge, an indoor baseball facility. Baggett and Swartz worked many hours pressure-washing and painting the former Texas Instruments building when Sam and Steve Barnett decided on opening the facility in 2002.
Instructors such as former major leaguers Jeff Reed and Ed Hodge have helped at the Edge. Hodge is currently a batting-practice pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.
“Our first travel team (in 2002),” Swartz said, “we had Danny Killian, Paul Hoilman, Dylan Pratt – all those kids that’d been really good pitchers in Little League – and figured, ‘Hey, we’re set.’ We found out in a hurry those three pitchers are burned up by the time you’re done with pool play. After that, Ed Hodge would come in and work with pitchers for years, and after that first year, we went from having three to having nine kids on our 12-man roster that could pitch.”
The Edge has seen its share of strong arms.
“Our very first paid employee was (St. Louis closer) Jason Motte,” said Sam Barnett, who wanted to mention the late Vanas Robbins being the “dearest.”
Barnett said Swartz and Baggett volunteered their time and energy “from day one” preparing the facility, and along with Dempsey, have worked numerous camps there.
“Without a doubt, these three folks’ biggest thrill is to have the chance to help a young man improve and enjoy baseball,” Barnett said. “They are very dedicated to their kids and are not doing this for self glory. All in all, in the words of our dear friend (former Little League coach) Doc Whitmore, ‘They are just great humans.’ It was an honor for their team to carry the Edge name.”
Trey Williams is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org