With Will Craig leading the pitching staff and a typically strong lineup, it looks like Science Hill is once again the team to beat in the Big Eight Conference.
The Hilltoppers’ baseball team was off to a good start as it headed into Tuesday’s game at rival Dobyns-Bennett. They were 3-0 in league play and 4-2 overall.
Sullivan South is expected to give the Hilltoppers the hardest chase while D-B is close behind the Rebels. Daniel Boone and David Crockett are in the mix for the upper-half chase while Tennessee High, Sullivan Central and Volunteer will have to battle hard to get in the conversation.
Even though Science Hill is picked to win, Hilltoppers’ head coach Ryan Edwards said an identity search is in progress.
“We’re still trying to figure out who we are,” said Edwards. “There are some things we’re trying to weed through.”
It can be said Craig is part of the search. The powerful junior right-hander certainly has potential on the mound.
“Will has the ability to be the best pitcher in the Tri-Cities if he puts it all together,” said Edwards. “He has the upside, but he has a long ways to go.”
Andrew Sweeney, a senior right-hander, provides a nice complement to Craig at the head of the rotation.
“I think either of them can be our No. 1 when they are on the mound that night,” said Edwards.
Also in the pitching mix are senior Heath Loyd, junior Reed Hayes and sophomore Daniel Sweeney.
As for the everyday lineup, the ‘Toppers are strong in the middle of the order with Loyd (SS) in the 3-hole, Craig (3B) at cleanup, and senior first baseman Scott Hoilman batting fifth.
“I think those guys will be fine,” said Edwards. “They are the key to our lineup. We need to get the 1-2 guys on, and I think the middle of the lineup will produce.”
Kyle Wilson (Jr., 2B) has been hitting in the leadoff spot for the Hilltoppers while Edwards has been trying different players at No. 2.
Rounding out the lineup are Jackson Reid (Sr., C), Justin Snyder (Sr., LF), Hayes (CF) and freshman right fielder Malik Stephens. Junior Jacob Pardue has been used at designated hitter.
In order for Science Hill to be in the mix for a region title and a run at the state tournament, some improvements must be made, said Edwards.
“We’ve got to throw strikes,” he said. “The ability is there, but we’ve got to get consistent.
“As far as hitting goes, we lack a lot of varsity at-bats. We have only three or four guys with significant at-bats. With the schedule we play, we will have to grow up fast.”
Without overpowering pitching, the Pioneers will have to be precise with what they offer batters. The good news is the pitchers are capable of that.
“We don’t have a clear-cut No. 1, and we don’t have anybody who is overpowering or dominant,” said head coach Scott Hagy. “But they throw strikes. We will have to play defense behind them.”
Hagy will use four senior right-handers in his main rotation: Matt Jackson, Joe Ganger, Chad Smith and Matt Hartgrove.
As for the lineup, Ganger is at the head of the class. The shortstop is a third-year starter.
Other key bats in the lineup are senior outfielders Seth Wright and Andrew Hagy, and senior catcher Jeremiah Rogers. Jackson, who plays second base when he doesn’t pitch, should help provide some punch.
“We’re expecting big things from him, but he’s off to a slow start,” said Hagy.
Defensively, Rogers has been a standout. He’s already gunned down three would-be base stealers. And the Pioneers haven’t made an error in three conference games.
So it will be hitting that likely determines the success level of the season.
“I really believe we can compete in the upper half of the league,” said Hagy. “But we’ve got to start hitting the ball.
“Science Hill is a clear-cut No. 1, but after that it’s a battle.”
Pitching depth is one of the foundations the Trailblazers will build on this season.
“We don’t have guys who throw hard, but most of them throw strikes,” said Boone head coach Robbie Hoover. “If we are successful we will have to catch all of the outs and not give away any free runs.”
Six players are expected to contribute on the mound with Milligan College signee Cory Jenkins leading the way.
“He’s really a No. 1 guy,” said Hoover. “We have used him as a closer because he’s versatile, but really he’s too good not to be starting.”
Rounding out the rotation are junior right-hander Daniel Wagner, senior righty Andrew Martin, junior right-hander Jacob Littleton, sophomore lefty Daniel Cox, and Taylor Smith, a junior righty.
At the plate the Trailblazers don’t have a ton of pop, but there should be enough good hitters to put some runs on the board. Leading the way are Littleton (SS), Smith (RF), Josh Bacon (So., 3B, C), Cox (OF) and senior second baseman Zach Hancock.
Smith has the most power, said Hoover, but most of the players are gap hitters.
“We have just enough hitting to score some runs,” said Hoover. “But we will have to manufacture some, bunting and stealing. We can’t rely on the home run like we have in the past. We will have to be more aggressive offensively.”
Overall, Hoover said he believes his team will be competitive in the Big Eight.
“We have a good mix of seniors and younger guys,” said Hoover.