Science Hill baseball had a lot to Crowe about in the late ’90s.
Junior pitcher Brandon Crowe was the state tournament MVP when Bernie Young’s Hilltoppers won the state championship in 1998. Equally impressive in the eyes of many was what a high level Crowe’s brother Nick played at as a freshman starter on that team.
“Nick played shortstop and catcher and pitched as a freshman, and I think he played a little second base,” said leadoff batter Mike Rader, who went on to play football at ETSU and is now the head coach at Maryville College. “He was a phenomenal athlete to be able to do all of those positions as a freshman. And going into the state championship game just watching that guy mature – I mean I want to say he went like 4-for-5 in the state championship game.”
Crowe joined such Hilltoppers as Ferrell Bowman, Daniel Norris and Will Craig in playing well at the state as a freshman. Crowe was still 14 years old, and Young was especially impressed with the youngster’s poise while taking on nationally ranked Germantown for the first of two meetings in the second game of the tournament.
“Nick wasn’t big-eyed,” Young said. “He was a little freshman on shortstop making plays. … He was the consummate coach’s player. Man, everything he did, he wanted to be the best, whether it was offseason conditioning, batting practice, base-stealing. He was just a driven, driven individual – like his brother.”
It all happened so quickly for Nick, who had a two-run single in the first inning of the title game, that it was hard to realize the magnitude of the moments during the championship run. However, he quickly assessed its potential impact while on the bottom of a dogpile in which Rader and Brian Miller jumped.
“Brian Miller was like 6-foot-6 and you could see him leaping in the air,” Nick said. “I was a 14-year-old freshman and probably about 5-7 and 150 pounds soaking wet. … I remember the two of them just jumping and landing on me.”
Science Hill was back on top of the league the following season, and probably had a better team. It was ranked No. 10 in USA Today, but was upset early in the postseason.
“Brandon was the No. 1 pitcher and I was the No. 2 pitcher,” Nick said. “At one time, I think I was 10-0 and he was probably around 13-0 before we ended up getting beat. … That was probably a better team all around.”
Crowe hit .504 with eight home runs and 28 stolen bases, and went 10-0 with a 1.31 ERA that sophomore season. He was the Johnson City Press Super 22 Player of Year as a junior after hitting .543 with six home runs and 22 stolen bases, and going 14-1 with a 1.51 ERA.
Crowe was three-time All-State. He hit .490 with 21 home runs, 91 stolen bases and was 31-5 on the mound.
“I think one of the reasons we were so good was Bernie’s offseason workout program, and in-season,” Crowe said.
Crowe’s first two offseasons included football. He was an All-Big East Conference cornerback as a sophomore, but gave up the sport after suffering what he thinks was a concussion while making the transition from running back to option quarterback in a scrimmage against Greeneville. Assistant football coach Benny Tolley, who coached former major-league closer Billy Wagner in football and baseball at Tazewell, quickly compares Nick Crowe to Wagner and Daniel Norris while talking about multi-sport naturals and extreme competitors. He smiles thinking about how physically Crowe played his cornerback position as a sophomore.
“You notice those kind early,” Tolley said. “When I saw Nick Crowe I said, ‘Golly, these are the kind that keep you hanging around with their talent, attitude and work ethic.’ … And Nick was a 4.0 student. He could’ve gone wherever he wanted on an academic scholarship.”
Crowe joined his brother Brandon at Tennessee. Nick’s three-year career at UT landed him on the All-Decade team. He started at second base as a freshman at UT and was tied for second in runs. He led the Vols with a .327 average his sophomore season, despite a position change (starting 32 games at first base and 17 at third).
He made the move to catcher as a junior, and still hit .301 while starting 46 games. He transferred to ETSU for his senior season, and a bad hamstring didn’t keep him from batting a team-high .389 for a Bucs squad that included Caleb Moore and former Science Hill teammate, Shane Byrne.
Crowe was still hampered by the hamstring when it was time for major-league tryouts. His bat speed, which former Chicago Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre clocked in excess of 100 mph, would’ve surely landed him a multi-year look with some organization. But playing so many positions and playing so hard wore down his body, including Tommy John Surgery while at Tennessee.
“I went to a tryout and I couldn’t run,” Crowe said. “I just got it in my mind that I’d seen so many people go to the minors for three or four years, and have to go back to college and finish, and I had just a semester left to finish my accounting degree.”
So now Crowe, who made the SEC All-Academic team all three years at UT, is a CPA with Blackburn, Childers and Steagall.
Along with his college education, baseball paid for many adventures. Nick played for the Anchorage Bucs in the Alaskan Collegiate Baseball League. He played in Cuba twice – once with the USA Junior National team and later during an exhibition trip with the University of Tennessee.
After his sophomore season at Science Hill, Crowe was picked to play for the Tennessee All-Stars in the Midwest Classic in Oklahoma. He was chosen for the National Amateur Baseball Federation team in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 2000.
Crowe epitomized “ballplayer.” He picked off runners as a pitcher in high school. He scored from second base after a throw to first on a chopper, squeezed runners home and stole home in college.
One evening in Bristol, he dusted himself off after an inside fastball from future minor-leaguer Boodle Clark and hit a long home run. When Tennessee was playing ETSU at Cardinal Park one night, he turned around a low- to mid-90s fastball from 6-foot-7 right-hander Willie McKenzie to conclude a chirpy confrontation.
“I was never the biggest, but I’d stand up to anybody,” Crowe said.
More than one person has mentioned Crowe’s cocky, hard-charging, head-first manner evoking images of Pete Rose.
“I was always the dirtiest; I was always the sweatiest,” Crowe said. “I felt like I had about the same amount of talent as everybody did, but nobody was gonna out-hustle me. I think I got that from my dad, and through my brother as well. I always played the hardest. My mom didn’t like it when I always came home with the dirtiest pants, but I knew if I was gonna play, I was gonna play hard.”