A three-way tussle is expected for the Watauga Valley Conference baseball crown this season.
University High, Unaka and North Greene all boast plenty of talent, while Hampton is a solid No. 4 pick and Cloudland brings up the rear.
University High is off to a 4-0 start after finishing 16-12 last season.
Veteran head coach Joe Borden expects a competitive league race this season.
“We’ll be competitive, although North Greene may be the team to beat,” Borden said. “They’ve good athletes and good coaching.
“But, I think we’ll be solid defensively and we have a good pitching rotation with three seniors leading the way. We have some depth we haven’t always had.”
Brock Wherry, Hunter Tester and Jeff Kennedy give the Jr. Bucs a good rotation of starting pitchers, while junior Andy Hardin is the starting catcher.
The rest of the infield has senior Jake Balch at first base, either Wherry or junior Jackson Colvett at second base, junior Zack Vicars at third base, and Tester at shortstop while senior Stephen Bartow is recovering from an ankle sprain.
The Jr. Bucs, who will again be playing home games at Persimmion Ridge in Jonesborough, has juniors Justin Wiseman, Marshall Hurley and Connor Bartow in the outfield.
Kennedy could also spend time out there, while Hurley, Vicars, Wiseman and Stephen Bartow are relief pitchers.
The Rangers were 2-10 early last season before rallying to finish 16-16 and earn their seventh state tournament appearance.
Unaka (1-2), under second-year head coach Aaron Dugger, could have some more lumps early this season with next week’s schedule consisting of David Crockett, Unicoi County and Greeneville.
The Rangers do have a deep bullpen with senior Josh Rasnick, junior Isaac Ray, sophomore Eli Rasnick and sophomore Thomas Hardin among the pitchers who have worked extensively with assistant coach Ryan Nave.
Junior Weston Colbaugh returns as catcher, while Josh Rasnick and Hardin will spend time at first base, depending on the pitching matchup for a particular day.
The defense should be solid up the middle with juniors Jacob Hill at second base and Danny Bales at third base, and Eli Rasnick at shortstop.
If not pitching, Ray will be in the outfield, along with Billy Bales at centerfield. Sophomores Jeffrey Yerkes and Brett Crawford will share time in the other positions.
“We’re young in spots, but that’s young grade-wise,” Dugger said. “North Greene with coach (Tim) Lady is going to be really, really good. They have a lot of kids back. UH has the Tester kid back and other good pitching. Between UH and North Greene, they can get anybody.”
Who are the Huskies who have impressed the other league coaches?
They are led by sophomore pitcher Tyler Bailey, who threw the program’s first perfect game on Monday against Gatlinburg-Pittman. He threw three no-hitters last year as a freshmen.
The pitching is good all the way around as three hurlers - Brett Bolton, Zak Potter and Adam Kirk - combined to no-hit Cloudland on Tuesday.
Leading hitters are Dalton Wright, Troy Hall, Zach Britton and Bailey. Britton is the team’s best power hitter, a definite home-run threat.
Young at spots, the Huskies have a group of sophomores and freshmen who have plenty of experience playing together.
The Bulldogs (1-2) beat Cloudland 13-3 on Monday as Mark Ailport, David Finney and Josh Henegar each collected three hits.
Also the winning pitcher, Ailport gave up just three hits and struck out six in five innings of work.
Left-hander Dallas Clawsen is behind the plate for the Bulldogs, who had Anthony Oliver reach base four times in Monday’s win.
It’s sure to be a challenge for head coach Kevin Kendall, who has Brent Hyden and Danny Arnett as his team’s aces.
Zach Shell will also spend time on the mound, while senior Caleb Harrison is penciled in at catcher.
Reed Jennings, Curtis Hitechew and Hunter Nelson are some of the others whom Kendall is counting on this season.