Mudd Dogs enjoy good AAU season

By Matt Hill

   This summer, the Tennessee Mudd Dogs 15-and-Under AAU baseball team lived up its nickname. The kids on the team were fierce competitors, and were a mess to deal with.
   The Mudd Dogs played all summer, and finished their season in Kingsport last week at the AAU 15-and-Under National Tournament. The Mudd Dogs featured talent from all over the Tri-Cities, including five players from Carter County.
   One of the coaches also happens to be from Carter County, as Unaka graduate and King College pitcher Jon Minton served as the pitching coach.
   The other coach was fellow King College player John Patterson.
   Minton thought it was a great experience.
   "It was different," Minton said. "Being a coach gives you a different perspective. Coaching is something I want to do after college. It was definitely worthwhile."
   Minton had to adjust from being a player to being a coach. That involved being a disciplinarian for the first time.
   "It made me understand the whole discipline part of the game," Minton said. "I was responsible for the actions of the kids on and off the field. I was in more of a leadership position."
   It was a busy summer for this group. The team played 40 to 50 games, and participated in nine different tournaments.
   The Mudd Dogs qualified for the national tournament by finishing third at a tournament in Nashville.
   Once the Mudd Dogs were in the national tournament, they didn't back down from playing some of the nation's best teams.
   "I'm proud of the way they played with their backs against the wall," Minton said. "We won one game in the tournament, and we didn't win or lose a game by more than two runs. They didn't back down from anybody."
   Elizabethton High standouts Zach Stipe, Travis Bowers and Nat Treadway, along with Unaka star Chad Lewis and Happy Valley's Ryan Garland all represented Carter County well on the team.
   Stipe was one of the aces on the pitching staff. He wasn't overpowering, but he knew how to get the job done.
   "I like his attitude about pitching," Minton said. "He works on getting people to hit ground balls and foul balls. He enjoys instruction. He listens so he can make himself a better pitcher."
   Bowers is also a pitcher, but on this team he found his niche at shortstop.
   "At the first of the season, Travis pitched, played first base, third base and shortstop," Minton said. "We found him to be a valuable asset at shortstop, so valuable we found some other players to throw because he was needed at shortstop. He had great range, and made plays on ground balls."
   Treadway was one of the more consistent hitters on the team. During the summer, Treadway batted close to .400.
   "We moved him around the lineup, but he eventually became our leadoff hitter. He wasn't a power hitter, but he knew how to get on base. And he was also a real solid leftfielder.
   Lewis, who played catcher at Unaka this spring, was at second base through the summer. Lewis joined Bowers to make some outstanding double plays.
   "They were incredible in the field," Minton said. "They were good at turning double plays. But Chad has a passion for the game. He even gave us quality innings in relief on the mound. No matter where he was, he was contempt to be on the field."
   Garland, who will be a freshman this season, was also a valuable asset for the Mudd Dogs.
   "More than anything we liked his team speed," Minton said. "He was a really smart base runner. And he made some smart plays in the outfield on some balls that saved a lot of runs."
   Several of the Carter County kids mentioned played on the Junior Babe Ruth all-star team that won the state championship during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. But those kids opted to play on this AAU team this year.
   AAU takes up more travel time, but the competition is much tougher than in Babe Ruth baseball.
   "When I was 15 and played Babe Ruth, it was the thing to do," Minton said. "That's changed. Kids are wanting to get out and travel more.
   "You have a better chance to get noticed by colleges. You get a chance to travel, but the most important thing is you play better competition. You're playing against all-star teams from different states. There are a lot of pros and cons to playing AAU baseball. In AAU baseball you can get better, but it's taking away the value from local rec club and Babe Ruth baseball. There's definitely a lot of pros and cons to it.
   Lewis, who was one of those players that switched from Junior Babe Ruth to AAU baseball this year, was very pleased with how the summer and the national tournament turned out.
   "We played pretty well considering that we've only been together for one year," Lewis said. "The team that finished as runner-up only beat us 2-0, and we easily could have beaten them. They had a really good pitcher. I thought we did well.
   "We went in thinking if we win great. We didn't really expect to go the distance since we had only been together one year. Next year maybe we'll go a little bit farther. We had some really good coaches this year in Jon Minton and John Patterson."
   NOTE: STAR sports editor Jamie Combs contributed to this report.