Rangers tabbed as class of league

By Marvin Birchfield
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   As the Watauga Valley Conference baseball season gets underway, all eyes are on Unaka after seeing the team earn a trip to the state tournament last year.
   The Rangers are returning a lot of key starters from last year, so the thought of them having another stellar season with a trip to the state is very possible.
   "You can't count any team out of the conference, because North Greene has a good ball club, Cloudland returns some good players with one of the best pitchers in Upper East Tennessee, and from what I understand University has about 25 kids out," said Unaka coach Mike Ensor. "You can't count out anybody -- you've got to go out and play."
   The Rangers will be the strongest on the mound as they're returning all their stud-horse pitching from last year.
   "I think we're capable of being a very good team -- our pitching depth is good and we're returning every pitcher from last year," said Ensor. "Really the only position we have to fill is center field."
   Unaka definitely has an upper hand when it comes to the mound with the already proven talent of Randy Swearingen, Tee Blevins, and Daniel McInturff.
   The most impressive thing about this Unaka class, is that they've had success in every sport so far this school year, and another trip to the state would even make it that more special.
   "We went to the state last year, and some of these kids are going to the state in basketball, so these kids are used to winning," said Ensor. "Success breeds success, and these kids don't like to lose.
   "We're returning three players who were all-state, and we're a solid team in hitting the ball 1 through 9. I think we've got more of a chance of being a better team than last year, just from an experienced and age standpoint."
   Cloudland is a team which has some crafty experience, which will be key in its bid for a conference title.
   "I've got probably four good pitchers with Mark Byrd, who is definitely our ace, Clint Steiner, Dave Hogan and Aaron Stocton," said Cloudland coach Robbie Turbyfill. "In our last two practices we've hit the ball better than we did last year at this point. Hopefully we can face some fast pitching during the season, so we'll be better off in the conference games."
   The 'Landers have a tough road ahead of them with a schedule that has them facing some of the top area teams,
   "If we can compete throughout the season, and get better for tournament then we'll be in good shape," said Turbyfill. "We've scheduled a lot tougher teams this season, and I'm hoping when it comes tournament time it will help us out."
   The one disadvantage that Cloudland faces is the fact its not deep with experience inside their dug-out.
   "I've got six seniors that should step up and contribute pretty good, and then a couple of juniors that'll do well, but past that I really don't have that much of anything," Turbyfill said. "Until we can get a feeder program and a jr. high team, then we're hurting."
   University has gone through some changes from last season with a new coach being named.
   The Jr. Bucs lost key player Drew Harrell, but they will return Toby Hoyle at the mound, which should give them stability.
   "We'll have to play like the old saying goes, win the ones we're supposed to, and win some of the ones were not," said University High coach Pat Heaton. "We have to learn how to play smart, and not get beat by the fundamental mistakes."
   University High finished second in the conference at the end of the season with a victory over Cloudland, but it'll take a lot of improvement for them to make a run at first place.
   "We're a small school with about average pitching," said Heaton. "We're hoping to be at least a .500 team on the season, and we'll play some big schools, but we expect to be a scrappy bunch."
   North Greene is still in search of putting all the right people in all the right places.
   The Huskies lost a lot of experience, and the question for them at this moment is who'll step up.
   "We lost a heavy amount of guys to graduation last season, and now we're just trying to find out who all we do have," said North Greene coach Tim Bailey. "It's still up in the air with who all is going to pitch, so anybody could step in right now and get the job."
   One of the key returnees that North Greene has is J.P. Johnson, who led the team in hitting last season.
   "He hit around .500 last year, so we're expecting to big things to come from him this season," said Bailey. "Unaka is the class of our region right now, and I expect Cloudland to be strong with having Byrd at the mound."