By Keeli Parkey
Keeping with tradition, the expectations are high for the Unicoi County High School baseball team in the 2019 season.
“As we do every year, I expect to be in the top of the conference during the regular season,” Blue Devil head coach Chad Gillis told The Erwin Record. “I feel like we have the ability to compete and win within the conference.”
The 2018 season saw the Blue Devils post a record of 20-15 and take second place in the District 1-AA tournament before being eliminated by Greeneville – the team that finished tops in the 2018 state tournament.
“I feel like we had a good season last year,” Gillis said. “Sure, we didn’t go as far as we wanted/expected to, but we battled and accomplished some goals. Getting put out by Greeneville, the eventual state champs, was disappointing because we felt like we were evenly matched, but that’s the game of baseball. If we work on our mental approach/toughness I could foresee us being as successful as we want to be.”
Key to the Blue Devils’ success in 2019 will be pitching, according to Gillis.
“Pitching sets the tone for every game. We have two, experienced starters going on Mondays and Tuesdays in Peyton Whitson and Keyton Casey,” Gillis said. “If we have strong pitching, I feel like we can play with anybody. We have yet to see how much offense we can consistently produce, because the lack of scrimmages, but I feel like it will all depend on our pitching and defense. We can manufacture runs, but our success will depend on pitching and defense.”
Whitson, a junior, and Casey, a senior, will be the starting pitchers for Three Rivers Conference games.
“They both have strong arms and are seasoned guys that know how to win,” Gillis said.
Other pitchers will be senior Caleb Crain, senior Brett Strother, junior Darren Soulier, sophomore Kaleb Metcalf, sophomore Jordan Bridges, sophomore Robbie O’Dell and junior Ramon Avila.
“We have some good arms and a lot of guys that know how to induce ground ball and fly ball outs,” Gillis said. “Getting varsity experience over the next few months will be key for our younger pitchers, but they have the talent to compete day in and day out.”
The 2019 Blue Devil team is a mix of experience and inexperience.
“We have some strong, experienced returners. Strother and Casey in the outfield helps us to have a very fast outfield with two strong arms,” Gillis said. “Pitching will be a strength, but could also be a weakness in that we will be throwing a lot of young arms late in the week. We are starting four or five guys each game that have never started or played a varsity game. I can see us improving with the guys we have, but we are just going to have to get those young guys game reps. Our returning upperclassmen must help teach/coach these guys throughout the season. They have to be the ones to set the example on how each position is played and the work that must go into being successful.”
The UCHS defense will include senior Drew Keasling, junior Dakoda Bell and Crain behind the plate.
“Drew was a spot starter last year and has done a great job so far as the everyday starter,” Gillis said.
Junior L.J. Mitchell will start at third base. O’Dell and Keasling will both see time there. Avila, Crain and O’Dell will all see time at shortstop.
“Ramon played some second base last year and has transitioned well to the shortstop position,” Gillis said. “Caleb Crain, Jordan Bridges and Robbie O’Dell will share time and second base. Caleb is a returning starter at second base. He has done a great job over the last two years.”
Playing at first base will be senior Garrett Manuel, Whitson and Metcalf.
“Our outfield will consist of Brett Strother, Keaton Casey, Darren Soulier, Jordan Bridges, (junior) Kody Lewis and Peyton Whitson,” Gillis said. “Casey, Strother and Whitson are all returning starters in the outfield, but all will see some time based on our pitching situation.”
The Blue Devils should also be solid offensively.
“We have a competitive lineup,” Gillis said. “The key will be to get guys on base for Strother, Manuel, Whitson and Casey. We do have some power with these four guys and we will count on the other five to find ways on base. Caleb Crain and Ramon Avila will be atop the lineup, both being contact guys that know how to put the ball in play. Drew Keasling is a returner who had some big games offensively as a junior.”
Leading the way for the team will be its seniors – Crain, Manuel, Strother, Keasling and Casey.
“All of the seniors have had success in previous seasons and will play a major role this season,” Gillis said. “We not only depend on their talent and play, but their leadership will be needed with so many young guys getting playing time. This is a great group of seniors who have worked hard during their time in the program.”
The Blue Devils will compete in a league against Elizabethton, Happy Valley, Johnson County, Sullivan Central, Sullivan East and Sullivan South.
“Elizabethton has multiple returners who had a lot of playing time last season,” Gillis said. “They are probably the favorite, but I feel like the rest of the conference is decently even. I feel like we can beat anybody in our conference if we play to our ability and limit mistakes and freebies. In my five years, it has always come down to the last week of games to determine conference championships. I don’t see that being any different this year.”
Serving as assistant coaches this season are Keith Greer, Travis Griffith, Ben Peterson and Greg Van Tassel.
As the 2019 season moves ahead, Gillis said the team and coaching staff appreciate the backing of the community.
“I just want to thank the community for all of the donations and support we have been given,” Gillis said.
The Blue Devils opened the 2019 season on March 11 with a 7-3 Three Rivers Conference victory over Sullivan South.
“I was really unsure of what to expect today,” Gillis said. “We only had the chance to scrimmage one time in the preseason and that was the first week. This is also a newer group of guys with the varsity and the first start for many of them.”
Whitson got the win on the mound. He gave up 3 hits and struck out 6. He also went 3-3 at the plate with one double.
“Peyton dominated on the mound the entire game,” Gillis said. “He kept South at bay long enough for us to finally put crooked numbers on the board.”
The Blue Devil defense was key to the victory.
“We played well defensively also,” Gillis said. “L.J. Mitchell had multiple putouts late in the game. Ramon Avila and Caleb Crain turned a big double play to end a possible rally. First time starters, Kaleb Metcalf and Jordan Bridges also did a great job offensively and defensively.”
The Blue Devil hitters also did good work at the plate.
“I felt like we really worked their pitchers and ran pitch counts up early in the game,” Gillis said. “We battled at the plate and had some guys step up when we had runners on base. For the first game, I was proud of the way we competed and battled for seven innings.”
Manuel had a 3-run homerun in the win. Metcalf was 2-2 at the plate.
The following day, South got revenge for the previous loss with a 9-1 victory over the Blue Devils at South.
“South’s pitcher really shut us down the entire game,” Gillis said. “We got to him a little in the second inning, but he only gave up one run. We really couldn’t get into a groove offensively.”
Crain started the game and took the loss for UCHS. Strother, Keasling and Avila each had one hit.
The Blue Devils were scheduled to host Sullivan East on Monday, March 18, then travel to East the following day. They will host Daniel Boone at Baxter Field at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 21, then travel to David Crockett on Friday, March 22, at 5:30 p.m. They are also scheduled to travel to Madison County on Monday, March 25, for a game beginning at 7 p.m.