Highlanders look for boost in results

By Wes Holtsclaw
STAR CORRESPONDENT

   This season, the Cloudland High baseball team is looking to get in more hits than Mike Tyson.
   In what completes rebuilding from the past two years, the Highlanders are looking to make waves in the Watauga Valley Conference on the field and behind the bat.
   For the past two seasons, the Cloudland Highlander baseball team has been lacking the senior leader role. This year, there are seven young men ready to step up and take that spot.
   Caleb Denton, James Gardner, T.J. Lunsford and Rick Whitehead are returning starters, while Eric Smith, Aaron Gray and Brandon Odom fill in the athletic 'Lander pack.
   Despite losing the majority of their games last season, the Highlander team played their best in tournament action, upsetting then No. 1 seed Hampton. The late charge motivated the team to focus on this year's campaign.
   "This year's goal is the same as last year," said Cloudland coach Jeff Bradley. "First, to make it to the regional tournament, and secondly, to win 50 percent of our games this year."
   The outlook for this team is perhaps the best any Cloudland team has had since the '99 season. Leading the way for Cloudland are senior pitchers Caleb Denton and James Gardner.
   Denton and Gardner have been starters for Cloudland since their eighth-grade season in 1998. Denton holds a key spot at shortstop, while Gardner fills in at left and centerfield.
   "I believe that if we play the best we can, this is the year we could win the district," said Denton. "We have all of our players coming together. It's something we have been waiting for."
   "We'll be pretty good," said Gardner. "I think we have the potential to battle at the top of our conference, but Unaka will be the toughest team like always."
   The entire Watauga Valley Conference is returning improved teams from last season. It will be difficult for Cloudland against the likes of Unaka, North Greene and University High, but senior T.J. Lunsford believes they can do it.
   "We have our infield back for the third straight year," said Lunsford, who starts at the third-base position. "There is a battle going on for one spot in the outfield. Other than that, this team is complete."
   Most of the players on the team have played together since Little League. With the most seniors Cloudland has had in three seasons, that could be a key.
   Said Lunsford: "All of us on the team know each other and play well together. It's something that we've tried to carry with us since we were younger, maybe this is our year."
   Filling out the infield is junior Dale Baker at first base, and sophomore Clint Steiner at second base. The outfield lost a key player in last year's lone senior Nathan Webb, but returns junior Josh Johnson and sophomore Mark Byrd to fill in some spots.
   "That spot that Webb left in right field is still open," said Bradley. "Several kids are battling for that."
   Among those battling for the position are junior Cole Gouge, and seniors Ricky Whitehead and Aaron Gray. Seniors Brandon Odom and Eric Smith return to fill in with infield positions.
   A major key to this team will be its returning pitchers, which includes Byrd and Johnson.
   Said Bradley: "We've got everyone back on the mound. With another year's experience they should come around and be better. The infield is looking good. They are further ahead this year than we were last year at this time."
   Cloudland is playing a much tougher schedule this season, but should be a good conference contender deep into the year.
   "I believe anybody could win it," said Bradley. "And at the tourney's the number four seed can always beat the number one, so you never know."
   The key for this team is simple: to pitch the ball well, make the fielding plays, and get some runs on the board. If they can do that, they could compete with almost anyone.