Warriors team to beat in Watauga Conference

By Marvin Birchfield

   When asked who's considered to be the favorite heading into this season's Watauga Conference race, there is one team that always seems to come to mention first.
   Happy Valley is regarded to be the powerhouse this year, as the Warriors will be returning two key pitchers from last season.
   "Everybody is picking us to win, but we lost a lot of good kids last year," said Happy Valley coach Greg Hyder. "We lost Lamar Rollins and Cody Cannon last year -- both of those guys were some of our best hitters."
   Ryan Toney and left-hander Todd Caldwell will look to lead the Warriors at the mound, which will be an important key to their success.
   "We've got a lot of young kids who have already had some playing time under their belt, so if our pitching can hold up then it will give us a good chance," said Hyder.
   The most valuable player in the Warrior lineup is senior Tim Whaley, who has been a team leader in each of the sports he competes in.
   "We've had success this year in every sport this season, and they've gone as Whaley has gone," said Hyder. "He plays with a lot of emotion and heart -- he's a real competitor."
   The Warriors finished just one game shy of making the regional tournament last season, sporting a record of 19-12, but this season it looks as if their chances are much greater.
   "I feel we've got a really good nucleus here, and we came up short of reaching the regionals last year," said Hyder. "Hopefully we can find a way to get there this time, if our pitching can get it done."
   There's no question to who has been the team to beat over the past two decades, and this season there's a buzz stirring up about getting itself back into championship form.
   It had been a long time since Unicoi County had a disappointing season like it did last year, but don't expect the Blue Devils to stay at the bottom of the ladder. Their desire to keep the tradition lives on.
   "We expect to win. We have the talent to do so, but we just have to play like it," said Unicoi County coach Chris Bogart. "We want to get it back from the miserable season we had last year."
   The Blue Devils will return a lot of experience this year, and the depth of their team is an important issue in becoming one of Upper East Tennessee's elite.
   "We have more experience this season, so we should be better than what we were, especially with our depth," said Bogart. "Our pitching depth is better, and the ability on offense should help us out this year."
   Unicoi will be led by Travis Bowers and Chase Whitson on the mound, while Matt White and Tim Peterson returns as last year's starters.
   "It's still too early to tell who our key players are going to be right now. We have 18 guys who are all capable of starting," said Bogart. "I feel like it's going to be a good year for us, and the conference is going to be very competitive."
   Sullivan North was the team which emerged as last year's winner of the district in their defeat of Sullivan Central.
   The Golden Raiders lost several key players, but don't under estimate the defending champions just yet.
   "We lost six seniors and that's a lot of leadership to lose," said Sullivan North coach Dave Dixon. "We do have Trey Mosley back and he won all 14 games he started in and received honors of all-Region and all-conference."
   Sullivan North will not be as experienced, but its hopes for a repeat are still pretty optimistic.
   "I think we'll hit better than we did last season, and if things will fall into place then we're hoping to come on strong toward the end of the season," said Dixon.
   Watch out for here comes the Sullivan Central Cougars. Central finished second in the division last season, and there chances of topping that look pretty good at the moment.
   "I'm real excited for we have six of our nine starters returning this year," said Sullivan Central coach Brandon Krantz. "It's going take senior leadership -- we'll have five of them out on the field."
   Central lost two key pitchers from last season, but its key big hitters will be returning to the field.
   "Josh O'Dell, Daniel Skelton and Seth Hyder all hit just under .500 last season, so were really looking forward to them making an impact," said Krantz. "This league is more balanced than ever, and all the coaches do a great job, so I look for it to be a dog fight toward the year's end."
   Volunteer enjoyed their second best record in school history last season, finishing 18-14 on the year and fourth in the district standings.
   The Falcons are returning seven starters, so their outlook for another winning season looks to be right on track.
   "We lost our number one and two pitchers, but we'll have Robbie Smith back out on the mound, who went 5-1 last year," said Volunteer coach Chuck McClain.
   This will be McClain's first season as a head coach, as he replaces Danny McCloud, who is taking a leave of absence for a year.
   Volunteer will look to all-conference performer Daniel Banks to lead the way after he finished at .410 in batting, with plans to move from third base to shortstop.
   "I look for four or five teams to be pretty balanced, and I expect for it to be up for grabs by the end of the season," said McClain. "Our goal is to try and keep things headed in the winning direction."
   Elizabethton was at mid pack last year, and if the Cyclones can improve up on that, it is still too early to tell.
   The pitching is down, but one of their keys to success is how much they improve on hitting the ball.
   "Our pitching is not going to be as strong as it was last season, but we should be a better hitting team," said Elizabethton coach Steve McKinney. "We've added on some batting cages this year, and this should improve on the way we hit the ball."
   Travis Bowers, Zack Stipe, Kelly Adkins and Mitchell Blevins are just some of the guys who'll look to pull the Cyclones through, but it won't be easy with a tough conference road to travel.
   "It depends on how we play whether we'll be one of the top four or down toward the bottom," said McKinney. "We have a lot of young kids, but all of them have great work ethic."
   Johnson County looks to improve with the talent of some young sophomores coming up, but it's the defense on the field that'll make the difference for them.
   "We're pretty young and have a bunch of sophomores just like Happy Valley does," said Johnson County coach Pete Pavusek. "We'll just go out work hard and see how it goes."
   The Longhorns will have senior Michael Davis and sophomore Jesse Jenkins at the mound, but it's the play of the in-field that will be critical in their quest.
   "Our defense has to play well to give us a chance," said Pavusek. "It's going to be tough for us, because we play in such a tough conference."
   Hampton was at the bottom of the list last season, so the improvement of young players is vital to Bulldog success.
   "We're going to have to get people into pitching shape, and their going to have to realize what conference we're playing in," said Hampton coach Scotty Bunton. "We have young players with little experience."
   The Bulldogs appear to be strong in hitting with senior Adam Miller and Justin Waycaster, as they look to lead the team.
   "We put the bat on the ball pretty well from top to bottom, so we should be able to score more runs than what we have prior," said Bunton. "If we can continue to improve toward mid-season, then it's possible we could sneak up and be a late-season spoiler."