(Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Based on recent history, Daniel Boone and Science Hill would be clear favorites to win this year’s Big Seven Conference title.
However, Volunteer and its ace pitcher Morgan Marshall have said otherwise with their play on the field. Marshall threw a no-hitter recently against five-time defending District 1-AAA champion Daniel Boone in a 1-0 season-opening victory. She was again tough on Thursday, as the Lady Falcons romped to a 9-0 win over Science Hill.
Overall, the league is more open than recent years with David Crockett, Tennessee High and Sullivan Central all making progress. Dobyns-Bennett also expected to make some noise, once the Lady Indians get over some injuries.
Boone head coach Rick Wagner believes an improved league is good news down for the eventual champion.
“It’s going to be good for whoever comes out of the district,” Wagner said. “We’re going to see good competition, and that’s not been the case, although it’s not anybody’s fault. Right now, everyone has good pitching, good defense and everybody is swinging the bats better than they have been.”
Despite the opening-day loss, Daniel Boone remains a favorite, returning a ton of experience from last season’s 36-8 team.
It starts in the circle with the dynamic duo of senior McKenzi Ferguson and sophomore Jaclyn Jenkins. Ferguson gave up five hits and two runs in a 6-3 victory over rival David Crockett on Thursday. Although she had some struggles with location, Jenkins held on for the save in a final inning of relief.
Moving to catcher, senior Meredith Good has the unenviable task of replacing the graduated Kayla Sanders, last season’s Big Seven Player of the Year.
However, Good literally stepped up to the plate when needed.
“Before the season started, we didn’t know what we were going to do,” Wagner said. “The good thing about Meredith, she said, ‘I want to do it.’ That settled that. She knows the kind of shoes she’s replacing. She was a good second baseman, but she knew we needed her to catch. More than anything, she brings us leadership on and off the field.”
Junior Taylor Campbell also will catch for the Lady ’Blazers, while Jenkins and Ferguson will each see time at first base.
The infield is solid with sophomore Abbey Harrison and senior Hannah Montoya making spectacular defensive plays that allowed Boone to hold on against Crockett. Sophomore Kaylin Conkin adds to the talent at third base.
“Defense, Hannah is about as good as they come,” Wagner said. “We have good pitching, and we have a good lineup, and can send people up there every time who can swing the bat. We’ve struggled at times, but we’ve had trouble getting games in.”
Wagner got a nice surprise right before the season when senior Haley Wagner, who is committed on a Division I golf scholarship to Samford, decided to play. A versatile player, Wagner is both good at third base, in the outfield and gives the Lady ’Blazers a third arm.
She’s also pretty good at the plate, going 2-for-2 and adding a pair of walks in Thursday’s win.
The outfield also has senior Allison Littleton and sophomore Logan Fisher. Caroline Wilson and Lindsey Laughren are a couple more who should contribute to Boone’s cause.
The Lady ’Toppers can beat anyone on any given night proven by their season-opening 5-4 win over perennial powerhouse Unicoi County.
As with Boone, it starts in the circle for the Lady ’Toppers with senior Emma Martindale and junior Vanessa Elliott.
Martindale, who is usually at shortstop when not pitching, can also swing a mean bat. She had two doubles and two triples in a 16-4 rout of Dobyns-Bennett on Tuesday. Her big day helped Elliott improve to 5-1 on the season.
The biggest thing counting against Science Hill this year is experience, or the lack thereof.
Left fielder Erin Gorzka, who played flex last season, and second baseman Courtney Morelock are seniors, but the majority of the roster is made up of underclassmen. Counting that and the fact that Elliott and Martindale were the only returners with many plate appearances, it makes some of Science Hill’s early wins that much more impressive.
There are even two freshman in the starting lineup most days, Meredith Jackson at catcher and Blair Henry at third base.
Sophomore Meredith Wright, who is hitting .500, is another catcher, while another sophomore Cheyenne Smith is another at third base.
Sophomore Megan Maupin, a powerful hitter with a team-best seven doubles, is at first base, while Morelock and Martindale can shore up the middle.
In the outfield is junior Megan Guinn, who currently leads the Lady ’Toppers with a.543 batting average. Julie Wyse, who is also a backup pitcher, Gorzka and Elliott also play in the outfield. Abby Higgins should add depth a variety of positions when she gets fully recovered from a knee injury.
There is plenty of fight in the Lady Pioneers, evident in their loss to Boone.
Down 5-0 in the sixth inning, Callie Lowe belted a two-run single. An inning later, Crockett battled back to have the tying run on base and the winning run at the plate before Boone’s Hannah Montoya made a diving catch and out at second base to end the game.
“That’s one thing about these girls, they don’t ever quit,” Crockett coach Carla Weems said.
That was certainly the case with shortstop Lily Ayers who had a 10-pitch walk in the final inning to get on base.
“I like it for my girls to battle,” Weems said. “They know if they have two strikes on them, I want them swinging if it’s anything close. I like the way they battle.”
Becca Copas pitched against Boone, but the Lady Pioneers can also throw Allison Mango, Madison Grindstaff and Kelsey Devotie.
The rest of the infield against Boone consisted of Kelly Hooks at catcher, Samantha Fox at first base, Grindstaff at second, Ayers at shortstop and Jessica Leach at third base. Leach later moved to the outfield, when Sadie Murr came in to play third.
Others who played in the outfield were: Kelly Ann Colon in left, Madison Tarlton in center, and Kaitlyn Shelton in right. Tarlton, the team’s lead-off batter was especially productive at the plate with a double and two walks.
“Madi is a very disciplined hitter,” Weems said. “She does a great job in the lead-off position.”
There are big games looming on the horizon, including another one next Monday evening in Jonesborough when Crockett hosts Science Hill.