BECAUSE, IN BASEBALL, THERE'S ALWAYS A NEXT YEAR
VOLUNTEER (4-21, 0-12)
When he took over as the Falcons’ head coach, Justin Hite knew the rebuilding project he faced would take longer than one season. He appears to be right.
Hite wasn’t named head coach until February but had clear ideas about his lineup and personnel going into year one. With a full offseason, year two should be easier, even as he faces having to replace a core group of six seniors while continuing to change the culture while trying to move up in a conference with a top half that’ll be tough to crack.
Hite will have a strong group to build around. Prospective returnees include seniors-to-be P Camden Markham, C Lucas Adkins, 2B Logan Larkins, 3B Preston Heard and P Jason Fields, and rising junior CF Heath Douthat. But it will take years of consistent development for Volunteer to become a conference contender. It’s not inconceivable to see the Falcons move up, although progress will be measured in steps, not leaps.
SULLIVAN CENTRAL (6-20, 3-9)
The B7G’s other program with a first-year coach, the Cougars showed incremental progress under Clay Colley – a season sweep of league peer Volunteer, two near-misses against Three Rivers power Sullivan South and respectable non-conference wins against Unaka and Elizabethton. But the season ended with 12 straight losses, the last three by the ten-run rule, ending with a 12-2 defeat to Tennessee High on Elimination Saturday of the district tournament on Sullivan Central’s home field.
Colley’s offseason priorities mirror Justin Hite’s – finding successors to a large contingent of seniors while revamping the culture while seeking a foothold higher on the conference ladder. Seniors-to-be P/OF Andy McKittrick (who’s shown ace stuff on the mound) and 2B Holden Light will shoulder the largest expectations, but Colley’s best hopes rest on this year’s sophomore class, which features C Parker Mumpower, RF Matt Long, SS Blake Lucas and 3B/P Greg Akard. Behind them is a quintet of freshman who were part of this year’s roster, but didn’t play. All of which means 2017 may end up as another long season, but a bridge to 2018, when the Cougars might be in a stronger position to contend.
DAVID CROCKETT (9-23, 3-8)
The Pioneers were ranked among the contenders going into 2016, but started the season with consecutive run-rule losses to Dobyns-Bennett and Tennessee High and finished 5th in the conference, mostly by going 3-1 against Volunteer and Sullivan Central.
Crockett’s 2015 success (16 wins, 3rd place in the B7G) came in large part from its 11 seniors. So it was no surprise when 2016 was a setback. But head coach Scott Hagy is staring at another significant roster turnover – eight of the 15 players on this year’s roster are seniors, and their departure leaves holes throughout the lineup, most notably in a pitching staff that allowed eight runs a game.
The Pioneers have the makings of a solid keystone with C Will Long, SS Ethan Burger and 2B Will Leonard set to return. But there’s not much depth after that. 2017 could find David Crockett fighting to hold on to 5th.
DANIEL BOONE (21-15, 6-5)
The Trailblazers were all over the place in 2016. After a 3-6 start, they won eight straight, then lost four of five, then won five in a row, then ended the regular season with three straight losses. The see-saw continued into the district tournament – a 16-12 slugfest win over David Crockett preceded a run-rule loss to Dobyns-Bennett, followed by an impressive 9-6 elimination of Tennessee High, which came the day before a heartbreaking 5-4 walk-off loss to Science Hill that ended the season.
Like the three teams behind them in this year’s standings, the ‘Blazers lose a large and important group of seniors -- program mainstays Austyn Brown, Ryan Keever, Dean Malenda, Alex Percell and Gabe Sanders are moving along. (Percell was a favorite of mine, going from a good-field, no-hit, bottom-of-the-order shortstop as an underclassman to a reliable .309 batter as a senior.) But unlike the Volunteer, Sullivan Central and David Crockett, Daniel Boone has an equally large contingent coming back.
In 2017, head coach Rob Hoover can pencil in Kade Ferguson, Colt Campbell and Ian Weir at the top of his rotation. That trio joins Jake Chandler, Mitch Peters, Eric Rigsby and rising sophomore Logan Rivers (who excelled when pressed into service at catcher late in the season) in one of the best everyday lineups in the league.
But to break the Science Hill/Dobyns-Bennett stranglehold on the district, Boone will have to find a successor to Brown as a run producer. His 41 RBIs were 20 more than anyone else on the team. But Hoover’s teams traditionally show solid plate discipline – the ‘Blazers struck out an average of just four times a game this season – so even without a big bopper, they could be poised for big things in 2017.
TENNESSEE HIGH (23-9, 8-4)
This season, the Vikings were a senior-dominated outfit that felt it would give the program its first Regional appearance since 1991, and was a solid #3 seed in the district tournament. But after a muscle-flexing win over Sullivan Central on the first day, Tennessee suffered a crushing walkoff loss to Science Hill on Sunday and got dismissed by Daniel Boone on Monday, bringing the season to an abrupt end.
Among the players head coach Preston Roberts will have to replace are #1 pitcher Ethan Jenkins, OF mainstays D.J. Marrs and Ryan Little, slugging 1B David Tolbert, and C Deric Graham, the Big 7 Player of the Year. Graham set four school records -- batting average (.543), doubles (17), hitting streak (24 games) and hit by pitch (11) – as the centerpiece of a lineup that hit .361 and had seven players with 30 or more RBIs.
What’s more astounding is that they could have been even better. Junior Zach Hall, the team’s Opening Day starting pitcher, suffered an arm injury in March that relegated him to DH for nearly the entire season (and still hit .358 with 30+ RBIs). A fully healthy Hall could’ve have given the Vikings the edge they needed to claim the conference and the district.
Next year, with Hall, 3B Colby Fields, 2B Nick Wishon, and SS Banks Presson (who set a school record by getting a hit in nine consecutive at-bats) THS might wind up having the league’s best infield. On the mound, Hall will be joined by LHP Gavin Cross, a freshman who was superb in the district tournament, for a potentially lights-out righty-lefty combo at the top of the rotation.
Still, Roberts will have to reconfigure his outfield and rely on unproven players to contend again, and only time will tell if they’ll get past the disappointing end to 2016. But they’ll be in the mix.
SCIENCE HILL (26-15, 9-3)
[Full disclosure: I’ve been the “voice” of the Hilltoppers the last four seasons, and thus have seen them far more often than any other B7G team. Everyone in the program is wonderful to work with, the coaching staff is helpful beyond measure, the fans are good to me … so I may have a bit of a bias.]
It’ll take a while to fully decipher the Hilltoppers’ 2016 season. They never completely gelled, and even after an electrifying upset of top-seeded Dobyns-Bennett in the district tournament earned them home field for the first round of Regionals, went one-and-out in a six-error loss to Sevier County.
Confounding late-inning struggles – late leads slipped away in the regular season against Sevier County, Tennessee High, and Dobyns-Bennett twice – prevented Science Hill from a 30-win season and a chance of at least a share of the conference regular season title.
The good news for Science Hill is that it loses only three seniors: C Colton Birchfield, SS Jordan Holly and P/1B Reece Westmoreland. The bad news is that they take a lot with them. Birchfield solidified the catching corps late in the season; Holly swiped 31 of the team’s 78 stolen bases and slugged .465, and Westmoreland made a case to be the B7G POTY.
At the plate, Westmoreland hit .364/.420/.568 with a team-best 35 RBIs and five HRs -- including a walkoff in the district tournament’s Elimination Tuesday classic against Daniel Boone, and a three-run shot in the championship game at Dobyns-Bennett. (And his numbers could’ve been better. Back problems dogged him until mid-April; once cured, Westmoreland posted this finishing kick: 16 games, .458/.481/.792, 4 HR, 17 RBIs.) As the ‘Toppers’ #1 starting pitcher, the lefthander finished 6-2 with a 1.49 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP, with 11 BB and 78 K in 66.0 innings.
Science Hill faces a leadership void with the loss of its three seniors. But there are plenty of candidates to fill that role on a team to which nearly everyone else is set to return. Finding a successor to Holly, as a leadoff hitter and shortstop, won’t be easy. But there’s no shortage of replacements at first base and catcher. A lineup centered around OF/P Jacob Beaird, OF/P Avery Conkin and 3B Bryson Tolley needs complementary pieces but will still be tough.
Science Hill’s pitching staff, even with Westmoreland’s departure, could be the best in the league. Beaird goes into next year as the #1, but fellow left-handers Conkin and Brandon Garland and RHP Brandon Feathers would have that role on nearly every other team in the area. The right-handed Tolley recovered from arm problems to become a fireballing reliever late in the season and could become a starter in ’17. Behind them is a squad of promising youngsters featuring LHP Jackson Hill, a freshman with such promise he could earn a spot in the rotation. If the Hilltoppers hurlers stay healthy, head coach Ryan Edwards will be in the enviable position of having to get enough innings for each of them.
In sum – and this is where my bias shows -- if the Hilltoppers make the year-to-year progress they’re expected to, and get out of their own way, they have a solid chance to reach State for the first time since 2011.
DOBYNS-BENNETT (30-7, 12-0)
The Indians were proof that while slumps are bad, badly-timed slumps are devastating.
D-B went perfect in the league and ran roughshod early in the district tournament. But after inflicting run-rule blowouts on Daniel Boone and Science Hill, the Tribe went cold. They let slip the district with back-to-back home losses to Science Hill, then fell to Morristown East on the first day of Regionals.
A squad that posted a slash line of .370/.460/.496 and averaged 8.0 runs in its first 34 games put up just 16 hits and six runs in its last three. Just like that, a season that included winning streaks of six, seven and 16 games had ended.
But the Indians lose only five seniors and look poised for big things next year.
Dobyns-Bennett had a lineup so deep this past season that 2B Keaton Wahlbon, the #9 hitter, went .364/.449/.432. Wahlbon is one of three everyday players who’ve graduated; the others are RF Hunter Jenkins (.326/.423/.522) and 3B Carter Linton, who missed half the season with an ankle injury but still went .367/.396/.367. Also moving on is RHP Drew Pierce, a 6’4” flamethrower who was D-B's #1 starter.
But head coach Ryan Wagner will have the first five of his batting order back: CF Quentin Polinski (.373/.494/.567) at leadoff, followed by LF Evan Mahaffey (.421/.484/.495), SS Parker Hill (.453/.531/.689), 1B Ivan Phillips (.407/.558/.616) and OF/DH Daniel Starnes (.410/.455/.581). Also returning is C Logan Hullette (.273/.418/.295), whose versatility, speed and defense make him a threat greater than his numbers show. Then there’s Kellen Glasscock (.333/.392/.439), a role player who would’ve been a starter on just about every other team in the area.
The pitching staff will be topped by the left-handed duo of Starnes and Tanner Doran. Behind them are RHP Matt Taylor and a group that will be asked to contribute more in 2017.
There’s a reason Dobyns-Bennett won four straight Regional championships from 2012-2015. They’ve set the standard in the league and have very real expectations of returning to State. Based on this past season and their recent history, they’re the team to beat.
The good news for the Big 7 is that there is no shortage of candidates capable of doing just that.