Cyclones looking to build on 2002 campaign

By Ivan Sanders

STAR CORRESPONDENT
isanders@starhq.com

   From the time the final out was made in last year's regional championship, the Elizabethton Cyclone baseball program has been like a cat on a hot tin roof as they have anxiously waited to make another run that will put them in position to accomplish the same success as they did last season -- and beyond.
   "These kids really have the desire to go out everyday and do what it takes to win it all, and that could very well happen if they play like they are capable of," said Cyclone coach Steve McKinney. "I am depending on this bunch of seniors to show the younger guys what it takes to win because we won with them last season as juniors and they really do expect to win themselves as well."
   McKinney will be looking to a talent-laden group of seniors that are hungry to go and unseat the always tough Unicoi County Blue Devils, a team that has taken the conference title for the last 18 seasons. If the younger players on the team can fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, the Cyclones will be in a situation where 2003 might be the de-throning year of the Blue Devils.
   Joseph Vines, Wes Greer, and B.J. Miller will be called upon to set the pace from the hill as all three senior hurlers are capable of keeping any team off stride offensively. Miller will also see playing time in the infield where he received accolades last season.
   Roaming the outfield will be seniors Michael Porter in right field and Adam Greenlee in center with both players bring strong sticks and the ability to gun opposing runners down at any bag on the infield.
   Filling the other spots for the Cyclones will be juniors Nat Treadway, Kelly Adkins, and Travis Bowers on the infield with any combination of players bringing a bevy of experience to the infield. Thrown in the mix will be sophomores Trevor Hyder, Mitchell Blevins, and Ricky Garrison who will provide a deep bench of choices for McKinney to draw from along with freshman Ryan Kennedy who carries a lot of baseball savvy for a young player.
   Handling the catching chores for Elizabethton will be junior Jordan Bray and sophomore Nathan Bishop, both that possess strong arms and an excellent bat.
   McKinney will also look to put the ball in the hand of Bowers, Blevins, and southpaw Zach Stipe for additional arm power from the mound in what appears to be a very strong pitching staff for the upcoming season.
   "We certainly have a lot of depth which we haven't had in a while that will be a plus for us this season," stated McKinney. "I still have several kids that I haven't gotten a chance to look at and I anticipate there will be at least 16-17 players that will see action in any game because I like to run where I can and these guys can fly."
   Added McKinney: "These kids all know their roles and I have told them not to get disheartened if they don't always get on the field. Guys like Jake Berkley and Gavin Dugger are key role players that realize we need their speed and they have accepted their roles. All the players realize that one day they may be starting and the next day someone else may be there because when we get 10-15 games down the road I need to know what each one can do and how they can help us come tournament time."
   McKinney knows that a lot of coaches don't like carrying so many players, but feels that having good competition will force each player not to let down so someone else can step in.
   "I know that having competition makes everybody play hard on a constant basis," said McKinney. "I think our kids understand that philosophy and have worked very hard every practice to make sure they stay in the mix."
   If there is one key for the Cyclones, it will be to keep the arms fresh as far as pitching goes in an effort to prevent injuries. McKinney has developed a game plan that he hopes that will pay off in the long run.
   Said McKinney: "I am keeping my pitchers on a pitch count early in the season because I am not going to hurt their arms. I have also told them I want them to be honest with me about how their arms are feeling because even though people don't think I know what I am doing, I do. I can pretty much tell when a kid has tired and needs to be pulled."
   McKinney feels that the Cyclones as a team can stand toe-to-toe with anyone in the league, but admits that there is a very even parity among the league teams this season.
   "Unicoi County is always tough as is Happy Valley, Hampton, and Johnson County," quipped McKinney. "Volunteer has a very solid team and could be a darkhorse and Sullivan North has probably the best pitching staff in the conference. Central always is a team that you never can overlook as well."
   All in all, the Cyclone baseball program has a talented bunch of players and their destiny lies in their own ability to play every game at a high level. With baseball being a mental game, if a lapse occurs and Elizabethton drops a couple of conference games, then the battle to climb the ladder again could be a losing one.
   One thing in the Cyclones favor come tournament time will be the fact they will be playing at Joe O'Brien Field this year, so a good seeding should be one of the emphasis of the early season. It is for sure that the Cyclone skipper feels this could be the year for the Cyclone baseball program.
   "My gameplan is to play everybody and help the whole team get better so by season's end we can be as good a team as anybody," said McKinney. "We have started out 2-0 in conference play which I think is a first and having the district at home will definitely be beneficial to us this season."