It was already a really good baseball league with perennial toughies like Unicoi County, Elizabethton and Sullivan East.
Add Sullivan South to the mix, and the Three Rivers Conference figures to be one rugged battle after another.
In the early going, Unicoi, South and East haven't mixed it up head to head yet. Those teams each headed into Tuesday with 2-0 league marks.
It will likely remain a three-horse race, although Elizabethton and Happy Valley can't be ignored.
Sullivan North should be improved from last year while Johnson County figures to be in a rebuilding mode.
Here's a quick look at what some of the teams have to offer:
Record: 2-0 (league), 4-0 (overall).
Strength: Pitching with plenty of depth
Main focus: Playing consistently.
Top pitcher: Austin Green (Sr., RH).
Top hitter: Ethan Rice (Sr., SS).
Head coach Charlie Baxter said the Blue Devils can get it done on the mound.
“I think our pitching is pretty strong,” he said. “I feel we can compete on the mound, and we have depth, too.”
Joining Green in the rotation are junior Will Hubbard, senior Connor Simpson and impressive freshman Brandon Garland, a left-hander who Baxter said is “pretty doggone good.”
At the plate, Rice brings three years of experience and top-notch leadership. Other top hitters include senior third baseman Hunter Burnett and senior second baseman Ryan Lingerfelt. Green, Simpson and Hubbard also provide good sticks and will man the outfield.
Also, Baxter said Sam McInturff (Jr., c) is a consistent hitter.
“Overall we just need to be consistent, defensively and offensively,” said Baxter. “We don't want to be up and down in our approach to the game.”
Record: 0-2 (league), 1-5 (overall).
Main focus: Improving consistency at the plate.
Top pitcher: Dylan Richardson (Jr., LH).
Top hitter: Eric Carter (Sr., IF).
It has been a rough start, but the Cyclones have played a tough schedule and should have enough ability to get things turned around.
“We need to find our identity as a whole,” said head coach Joe Nix. “We should be strong on the mound, but we've struggled early.
“After losing five key contributors to a state tourney team, we will take our lumps early. But we look to play our best baseball in May again.”
Richardson, who helped pitch Elizabethton to the Class AA state tournament last year, is coming off a 9-2 all-state season. The Cyclones should be tough any time he has the ball.
He's backed up on a lefty-dominated staff by Dylan Tolley (Jr., LH), Connor Brown (Jr., RH) and Bo Pless (So., LH). Also, Nix said he expects hill help from Scotty Oliver (So., RH) and Caleb Chambers (Jr., RH).
Carter was a key hitter on last year's team, and he will get lineup help from Hunter Hodges (Jr., c, 3B) and Cam Miller (Jr., IF).
Record: 2-1 (league), 3-2 (overall).
Strength: Pitching depth.
Main focus: Execute the details. Small-ball team.
Top pitcher: Hunter Townsend (Jr., LH)
Top hitter: Justin Maupin (Jr., c).
Head coach Caleb Moore said he likes the attitude of this year's team.
“It's the passion about baseball,” said Moore. “We still have a ways to go, but I think the best is yet to come. We are continuing to get better.”
Townsend anchors a pitching rotation that throws strikes, pounds the zone and gives the defense a chance. Mason Pugh, a senior right-hander, authored a no-hitter in Monday's 5-0 win over Sullivan North.
“We are really stressing keeping a better tempo on the mound,” said Moore.
Getting runs for the pitching staff will likely come a base at a time.
“We're a small-ball team, drawing walks and bunting guys over, and moving up on balls in the dirt,” said Moore.
Maupin should be one the best sticks in the lineup. Senior third baseman Justin Pope and senior left fielder Joe Arnold also provide plate support.
Record: 0-3 (league), 0-3 (overall).
Main focus: Becoming more competitive.
Top pitcher: Sam Thomas (Sr., RH).
Top hitter: Blade Hampton (Sr., c).
It could be a rebuilding season for the Longhorns, but this is a program that usually finds a way to be competitive come tournament time.
Thomas leads the pitching rotation while senior left-hander Jake Sutherland provides the No. 2 punch.
At the plate, head coach Pete Pavusek said he's leaning on guys like Hampton and junior second baseman Adam Worley.
“Hampton is our only returning starter,” said Pavusek. “He has improved since last season.”
Other key sticks are sophomore shortstop Brandon Vannoy, and sophomore third baseman Payton Fenner.
Throughout the season, Johnson County figures to battling through growing pains.
“They are young and improving for the future,” said Pavusek. “But it will be a tough battle for us, being so young. We hope to be a tough out come tournament time.”
Record: 2-0 (league), 3-1 (overall).
Strength: Team speed. Runnin' Rebels.
Main focus: A high on-base percentage.
Top pitcher: Russell Koesters (Sr., RH).
Top hitters: Koesters (ss, Sr.) and Caleb Krutak (3b, Sr.).
Koesters is quite an ace for head coach Anthony Richardson. He's a third-year presence on the mound.
“He's probably throwing in the 83-84 mph range,” said Richardson. “He has a good slider, and he threw well against Elizabethton (last week).”
Supporting Koesters on the mound are junior right-hander Cooper Jackson, and senior submarine tosser Nathan Dye.
At the plate, Richardson said he will rely on his two returning starters, Koesters and Krutak, to get the job done. And just about everybody can run.
“It's probably the fastest group I've had since I've been here,” said Richardson. “The problem is you can't steal first. We've got to improve our offense, get on base, and put pressure on people.”
Richardson said the Rebels need to get their feet wet in the Three Rivers.
“It's a new conference and a new ballgame,” he said. “We expect all the time to compete for a championship, whether it's this conference or the other conference. That's always the goal.”
Record: 2-0 (league), 4-0 (overall).
Strength: Pitching staff.
Main focus: Gaining experience fast.
Top pitchers: Brady McGrew (Sr., RH), Hunter Stratton (Jr., RH), B.J. Murray (Jr., RH).
Top hitter: McGrew (cf).
Head coach Mike Breuninger said he believes his pitching will keep his team in most games.
“I think so,” he said. “Murray and Stratton throw a little harder than McGrew. He's more of a finesse pitcher.”
Stratton and Murray also figure prominently in the lineup plans.
“They bat in the middle of the lineup, so they need to produce,” said Breuninger.
In the field, senior second baseman Robbie Love and McGrew (3b) have the most experience.
Other key players include Curt Lunceford (1b), Trevor Holmes (Jr., c) and senior outfielders Dalton Smith and Brandon Glover.comments powered by Disqus