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Coach: Jr. Blue Devils were ready to compete

The Unicoi County Middle School varsity baseball team included Albert Alaniz, Noah Jones, Ty Engle, Nikki Satterly, Gavin Tipton, Chris Chavez, Bryson Bowling, Tanner Berry, Dylan Cerezo, Mason Hensley and Jordan Grindstaff. The team was coached by Matt Swinehart and Drew Keasling. (Contributed photo)

By Trey Williams

Matt Swinehart batted leadoff and played second base on Unicoi County’s 1995 state championship baseball team and his Blue Devils returned to the state tournament the following year during his senior season.

His return to Erwin 24 years later was off to a rousing start before the coronavirus pandemic terminated his middle school baseball team’s 2020 season.

Swinehart had been in the Nashville area since playing baseball in college at Trevecca Nazarene when he decided last year to move back home along with his wife Shelley, who is Unicoi County’s volleyball coach, and sons Jack (11) and John-Matthew (8).

“We wanted to move from Nashville,” Swinehart said. “It was getting too big and too fast. I love Erwin. I come from a deep tradition with Coach (Charlie) Baxter and all. I’m still friends with his son, Andy. …

“I’m pretty far removed from 1995 and winning a state championship, but I know about what team chemistry means and pulling for one another and buying into what a coach is saying and being successful as a team.”

Swinehart lived in Erwin until moving to Waycross, Georgia, when he was in the third grade. He moved back – after football season – for eighth grade and the debut of Unicoi County’s middle school baseball team, which his uncle Greg coached.

“I was on the first middle school team they ever had at Unicoi when I moved back in the eighth grade,” Swinehart said. “It was special. When we won the state championship it was pretty much that same team.”

Unicoi, which was comprised entirely of eighth graders, was off to a 3-0 start this season. It defeated Colonial Heights 4-0 and routed Holston (11-1) and Rogersville (13-2), and pitcher-shortstop Chris Chavez was the primary reason.

He pitched 3 2/3 innings against Colonial Height and recorded 10 of his 11 outs via strikeouts.

“Chris stands out,” Swinehart said. “Chris has the potential to be a special player. All the tools are there. He works hard.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on a kid, but he is going to have the potential to be a special kid as long as he keeps working at it and doesn’t let things get in his way and just be focused on what he’s got going on. He’s an all-around athlete able to play every sport, which I love.”

Gavin Tipton came on to strike out seven in 3 1/3 while recording the save against Colonial Heights. Overall, Blue Devils hurlers struck out 38 in 19 innings while giving up five hits. Those logging innings on the mound included Mason Hensley, Tanner Berry and Ty Engle.

Hensley also plays second base and Engle plays first base. Berry’s versatility allows him to play a number of positions.

“Whenever there was a hole vacant for a pitcher,” Swinehart said, “Tanner would move there, which was awesome.”

The infield included Tipton at third base. Catcher Nikki Satterly was primed for a productive season.

“Nikki was having a great year,” Swinehart said. “He hit a home run that first game.”

Right fielder Noah Jones almost homered in the opener, too. He hit one off the top of the fence against Colonial Heights.

Left fielder Jordan Grindstaff also hits for power.

“He’s a big, strong kid that hit in our four-hole,” Swinehart said. “At any moment, if he hit one it was probably going hard somewhere. He was one of those guys that when I’d throw in the cage I’d make sure I ducked behind the L-screen when he was hitting because it came off his bat so well.”

The lineup included a good glove in center fielder Dylan Cerezo.

Key contributions were also anticipated from Albert “Big Al” Alaniz and Bryson Bowling.

“I felt like the eighth graders were a group of guys that could compete at a high level,” Swinehart said. “It’s hard for me to say that because we haven’t gone through a whole season. We only played three games. But from just seeing them practice and the things they do I just felt like they were gonna be a special group of guys to be around and have as players. …

“I just hate that I’m not able to sit over there and watch them. I told them, ‘I just want to sit back and watch you guys play.’ Up and down our lineup we had no issues at all.”

Swinehart works for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has faith in everything happening for a reason.

That said, it’s difficult not to think of what might have been.

“I felt like we had a chance anytime we stepped out on the field,” he said. “I’m not a bragger or boaster, by any means, but I felt like with Chris going, I feel like we would’ve had a chance to compete with any team. …

“These kids were ready. I’ve told people this before: if these kids stay together they’ve got an opportunity to be a special bunch continuing on through high school. I hope they stick it out and stay together. I know this is a trying time, and it’s a good learning lesson for them.”

Swinehart also intends to help the Unicoi County Little League’s resurgence and, more than anything, wants to be a positive role model for youngsters at pivotal ages.

“It was an exciting start,” he said. “I was enjoying it. But I’ve got a good group of sixth- and seventh-grade guys and we’ll get right back after it next year. …

“I’m just praying. Something positive, a blessing, will come out of this; I’m sure of that.”

The JV roster includes seventh graders Ryan Allen, Rhett Allen, Ethan Butler, Nicholas Harmon, Austin Painter, Dylan Shelton and Matthew Whitson, and sixth graders Dalton Cerezo, Emmanuel Chavez, Issac Harris, Avery Jones, Angel Delgado, Dillon Sifford and Eli Woodby.