Clubs give sneak peek for start of a new season

Photo by Dave Boyd
Hampton's Adam Miller snags a pop fly on Saturday at the Bulldog field.

By Tim Chambers
STAR Correspondent

   The temperatures were in the mid-sixties, making weather conditions perfect for high school baseball teams to crank up their annual jamborees Saturday at Hampton and Unicoi County High Schools.
   The Bulldogs held their jamboree day with six taking part in this year's event. Avery County, Mitchell County, University High, Providence Academy, Cloudland and Hampton took part in the all-day affair, which started at 8 a.m. and lasted throughout the afternoon.
   Meanwhile in Erwin, Happy Valley, Elizabethton and Unaka hooked up with Unicoi County, Sullivan Central, Sullivan North, Volunteer and Johnson County to showcase their teams before the season openers.
   I spoke to each coach about this year's teams and here are their comments along with some jamboree highlights.
   The Bulldogs came out looking good, showing considerable improvement in two three-inning affairs.
   Hampton disposed of Cloudland 5-1 while rallying from a 5-0 deficit to knock off Mitchell County 7-5 in its second game.
   The 'Dogs are relying on the heavy hitting of Adam Miller, who smacked a double to lead their offense. Miller will play third base when not pitching. The infield features Brandon Barnett at first, Ben Harrison at second and Gene Sanchez at short.
   Dustin Crumley returns as the catcher, while Justin Waycaster, Zack Crabtree and Zack Trivette will handle the outfield chores.
   Josh and Eric Cole should give needed depth at the pitching position. Both were the winning hurlers in the first two contests.
   Coach Scotty Bunton is excited about the improvements made to the playing field and has future plans to upgrade the facilities.
   "We have redone our infield, inserting all grass baselines, and rebuilt the pitching mound into regulation size," he said.
   Hampton is in the process of building a batting cage, which will have two hitting areas along with two places where pitchers can throw. There is talk of adding lights to the field within the next few years.
   Coach Robbie Turbyfill saw some good things from his Cloudland squad, which made a nice showing against Mitchell County.
   "We came down here and hit the ball much better," said Turbyfill.
   Turbyfill stated the lack of a junior high baseball team is hurting the high school program.
   "Without jr. high baseball I am getting eighth and ninth graders that you have to go over the basics with before you can ever start to place a team on the field," he said. "We are the only team in the county that doesn't have a junior high program."
   Turbyfill will rely heavily on Mark Byrd for his pitching and hitting abilities.
   "His leadership will be a big asset with so many younger players on the team," Turbyfill said.
   Clint Steiner will provide depth at pitching, and Dakota Benfield will handle the catching duties.
   Turbyfill looks to his six seniors, consisting of Byrd, Benfield, Steiner, Zack Cook, Aaron Stocton and Dane Christman, to try and compete in the tough Watauga Valley Conference.
   "Unaka will be hard to compete with in our league," said the coach.
   Steiner threw well in the jamboree affair while Stocton had a single and two RBIs. Byrd was solid in the field, giving Turbyfill something to be optimistic about.
   Coach Mike "Acie" Ensor knows that his baseball team will have to play catch-up, because of the success of the basketball squad, for the first few weeks of the season. Several key members of the baseball team will be playing in Murfreesboro at the state basketball tournament this week.
   "It's nothing we haven't gone through before," said Ensor. "We are used to doing it every season and the kids know how to prepare for it.
   "These boys who have been out have great work ethics and it give us a chance without the basketball players to evaluate our younger talent."
   The Rangers need to fill some holes at centerfield and first base but pitching should be strong with Randy Swearingen, Tee Blevins and Daniel McInturff.
   The middle infield should be one of the area's best with all-state players Rusty Chambers, Chad Lewis and Swearingen holding down second base, shortstop and first base respectively when not pitching. Lewis and Chambers will see some mound duty.
   Tyler McCann and Cody Collins will solidfy the outfield along with McInturff. Brent Huskins returns as the catcher.
   Ryan Bowers and Travis Pasquale can play anywhere and depending on who's pitching will determine where they play. Blevins will see action at third when not pitching.
   Andrew Church is a great-looking freshman and should help add depth to our team.
   With the addition of former Unaka and King College standout Jon Minton serving as assistant coach, the Rangers appear ready to improve over last years record of 24-13.
   "Our schedule is a tough as it gets, so we hope that by playing these teams it will help us. Everything we are playing outside our conference will be high caliber AA and AAA teams," Ensor said.
   Our record might not be as good as last season's, but I think we can be a much better baseball team by tournament time.
   Coach Greg Hyder has high expectations for this year's Warrrior team. The Warriors will count on Ryan Toney and Todd Caldwell, two of East Tennessee's top hurlers.
   Shannon Buchanan and Tim Whaley are proven on the mound and will add depth to the rotation.
   Buchanan and Ryan May will split the catching duties as will Josh and Will Lowe at second base. Ricky Morgan, who had a home run in his first at bat, will play short, while Jordy Harrison is back at first. Harrison has lost 40 pounds over the winter and hits the ball with authority.
   "In our conference it's a dogfight everyday you play, so pitching and hitting are so important," Hyder said. "I feel like we can be a contender as our younger kids get experience as the season progresses."
   The Warriors knocked off the Rangers, showing a good display of offense by scoring six runs in the third behind six hits. Happy Valley, along with Elizabethton and Unaka, will host the Carter County Classic, March 18-20.
   Teams taking part are Elizabethton, Happy Valley, Unaka, Cloudland, Sullivan Central, Johnson County and Avery County.
   Coach Steve "Pink" McKinney looks for the younger talent to lead this year's Betsy squad.
   "We will be young with several junior and sophomores being thrown in the mix," McKinney said. "You might see a freshman possibly playing shortstop."
   Elizabethton hopes its seven seniors -- Travis Bowers, Zack Stipe, Nate Treadway, Kelly Adkins, Gavin Dugger and Alex Graves -- can provide the leadership needed to be successful in the tough Watauga Conference.
   Stipe, Bowers, Mitchell Blevins, Cody Eggers, Jonathan Crowley and Adam Grindstaff will provide the pitching. Coach McKinney likes the looks of freshmen Nick McNeil and Preston Smith.
   "They are putting the pressure on our upperclassmen, which can only be good for our team," McKinney said.
   Bowers is solid at third while Blevins will see action at short. Ricky Garrison will see action at second base.
   The outfield could see the likes of Treadway in left, Ryan Kennedy in center and possible Charles Peters in right. Peters is working his way into baseball shape after just completing basketball.
   "We have worked hard on the field at the high school with the addition of the new batting cage," McKinney said. "Our field is much-improved, which should help our junior varsity, freshman and junior high teams."
   McKinney added that getting to play at the Twins park is very rewarding for the varsity program.
   "It's a beautiful facility," he said.
   Elizabethton looked strong in defeating Volunteer 6-5 in a three-inning affair. Bowers won the home-run derby with three dingers in the second round.