It starts with North Greene, and everybody else is in chase mode.
Thanks to having Tyler Bailey on the mound for most of the important games this season, the Huskies are the clear favorite to win the Watauga Valley Conference baseball title.
North Greene lost its season opener, a 2-1 setback against Sullivan East, but had ripped off seven straight wins heading into Tuesday’s game in a Myrtle Beach, S.C., tournament.
Perhaps most ready to challenge the Huskies is Unaka, but the Rangers lost 12-2 to University High on Monday. The second game of the mini-series between the Rangers and Junior Bucs is scheduled for today at 5 p.m. at ETSU’s Thomas Stadium.
Hampton also figures in the mix with UH and Unaka, and the Bulldogs are off to a 5-1 start.
South Greene could earn its way into the battle while Cloudland will likely have to scrap and claw for any league victories.
Here’s a quick look at some of the league’s teams:
Record: 1-2 (league) 3-4 (overall)
Strength: Running the bases.
Main focus: Improving on-base percentage.
Top pitcher: Logan Metcalf (Jr., LH).
Top hitters: Luke Willoughby (So., 2B), Nick Walley (So., LF)
Traffic on State of Franklin shouldn’t have to dodge home run balls when the Junior Bucs are playing at Thomas Stadium. But UH can still be a very dangerous opponent.
“We’re not a power-hitting team,” said head coach Josh Petty. “We’ve been preaching all season about hitting hard ground balls and line drives. We’re not going to hit homers. We’ve got to put the ball in play, use small ball, and move runners. That’s the only recipe we have for being successful.”
At the plate, Willoughby and Walley are leading the way, Willoughby is hitting at a .444 clip while Walley is batting .333.
On the mound, the Junior Bucs have leaned heavily on Metcalf, a typical crafty left-hander.
“He doesn’t throw hard; he mixes it up,” said Petty. “He doesn’t walk people, and gets fly balls and ground balls.”
Metcalf was especially effective in a 3-1 loss to North Greene.
Arm injuries have hurt the depth of the pitching staff, but Petty said he’s hopeful for the return of a couple of pitchers later in the season. Senior catcher Ben Jackson is the Junior Bucs’ No. 2 pitcher, and Petty said he also does a good job behind the plate.
“I foresee him getting his batting average up and having a solid year,” said Petty.
Defensively, the coach said junior shortstop Nick Sewell is the catalyst and leader.
Record: 2-1 (league) 4-5 (overall)
Strength: Pitching staff.
Main focus: Being more productive on defense and at the plate.
Top pitchers: Thomas Hardin (Sr., RH), Jonathan Wright (Jr., LH)
Top hitters: Taylor Edwards (Sr., 2B), Eli Rasnick (Sr., SS)
The Rangers have a long and storied tradition, and always schedule big.
Already this season, Unaka has played Class AAA David Crockett, and Class AA foes Elizabethton, Happy Valley and Sullivan East.
It’s part of the process of trying to get back to the Class A state tournament for the first time since 2011. The Rangers have made it to at least the sectional round for five straight years with two trips to Murfreesboro.
This year’s bunch is leaning on solid pitching at the top of the rotation from Hardin and Wright. That’s the strength, and the Rangers need to complement it with better hitting and consistent defense, said head coach Tee Blevins.
It’s all part of fitting into their roles, said Blevins.
“I believe that if all the players will buy into the system and play within their roles, we can compete at a high level every time we are on the field,” he said.
Blevins said he couldn’t single out a player or two as a key to the season. He said Hardin, Wright, Edwards and Rasnick each have important roles.
“Those four all bring something different to the game, so I can’t really single one out,” said Blevins. “We have to have everyone pull their weight in order for us to be successful.”
Record: 1-1 (league) 5-1 (overall)
Strength: Senior leadership.
Main focus: Consistency.
Top pitchers: Jeffery Hughis (Sr., RH), T.J. Hicks (Sr., LH), Stone Hutchinson (Jr., RH).
Top hitters: David Finney (Sr., 1b), Tyler Hobbs (Sr., ss, 2b), Hicks (rf).
Hampton was knocking at the door last year with tight games against eventual sectional teams North Greene and Unaka in the district. This year, head coach Matthew Hardin said he hopes his team can take the next step. Consistency is the key.
“Day in, day out playing the same good baseball all the time,” said Hardin. “If we can get to the point where we’re doing that, we have the potential to be a pretty good team.”
The Triple H Threat of Hughis, Hicks and Hutchinson gives the Bulldogs enough arms to compete.
“Hughis keeps it around the plate,” said Hardin. “And Hicks’ command of his fastball from last year to this year has improved 100 percent.”
At the plate, Finney, Hobbs and Hicks are swinging the bat well while Hutchinson and Tristan Robinson (Sr., 3b) are also expected to contribute heavily.
Overall, the outlook is bright.
“Since I have been coaching, it’s one of the best teams we’ve had,” said Hardin. “We have the potential. We have a better hitting team already than we did last year. And if we continue to work hard, by the end of the season we should be better defensively than we were last year.”comments powered by Disqus