By Keeli Parkey
An experienced squad returns to the diamond this season for head coach Chad Gillis and the Unicoi County High School varsity baseball team.
“Having 14 returning varsity players is a tremendous plus,” Gillis told The Erwin Record. “All of my seniors have played full-time varsity since they were sophomores. My juniors have played varsity since they were freshman. We have a team loaded with experience and they fully understand the system we run.”
Gillis said his players are working hard to carry on the tradition of UCHS baseball.
“Playing in this program automatically sets the expectations high and the kids know and understand that,” he added. “Many of the players have fathers or other family members that played and won state championships. These guys want a piece of that for themselves.”
The Blue Devils have been working for several weeks to prepare for the 2017 campaign.
“During our offseason we work on our throwing, running and weightlifting programs,” Gillis said. “These typically start in September and run through January. The second week of February we can begin practice and instruction. During this time, we teach our system to the younger players and refresh the returning players. Most of this consists of our defensive setup, plays, pickoffs and situations. “Offensively, we try to work on our swings, bunting effectively, and offensive plays. We also try to scrimmage at least four times before the start of the season.”
Pitching will be a strength of the Blue Devils this season, according to their head coach.
“We are deep on the mound with Shaddon Peavyhouse, Caleb Wilson, Dylan Putman, Clay Simpson, Troy Podvin and Cameron Spires,” Gillis said. “ I trust any of these guys to go into any conference game and compete. … We also have a freshman with very promising talent in Peyton Whitson.”
Blue Devil fans can also expect their team to be strong in other areas.
“Defensively, we should be solid,” Gillis said. “We will have some kids playing in new or multiple positions, but this isn’t something that should be a problem. “We can also hit the ball well and effectively bunt when needed.”
Every Blue Devil will be counted on this season.
“I expect all of my guys to know their role and have a positive impact on and off the field,” Gillis said. “… Offensively, we will rely on everyone to have an impact in each and every game. Dylan Putman and Owen Nicholson are our top returning hitters and have already proven much of the same in 2017.”
Anchoring the outfield will be senior Nick Fender.
“Nick is a tremendous player in center field,” Gillis said. “He is the captain of the outfield and the staff fully believes in his abilities.”
Gillis also said he expects his team to compete throughout the season.
“Every conference game is very important,” he assed. “We really want to win the conference this year and feel we should. As always, Sullivan South and Elizabethton will be very important games to win. We will also play Greeneville, Science Hill, Sevier County and Dobyns-Bennett. All of these games will be a good challenge for us.”
During the 2016 season, the Blue Devils posted an overall record of 17-18 and won the District 1-AA tournament; however, their season came to an end with a 2-1 loss to Chuckey-Doak in the semifinals of the region tournament.
“Looking back on the 2016 season is tough,” Gillis said. “We didn’t play as well defensively as we could have and this cost us a few games in the regular season. We did get it together and win the district tournament and earn a regional bid.
“In the regional game, we faced a great pitcher and who may have made one bad pitch the entire game. I was not at all disappointed in the effort of our guys after 2016.”
Gillis said his players have used the lessons learned last season to improve.
“From this, we have learned how to win and we proved this against Elizabethton,” he said of his team’s 8-5 conference victory over the Cyclones on March 13. “We had a mental mistake or two and a couple bad calls, but they never gave up and never let the negative effect them. The guys remained calm and just continued to hit and score runs each inning. I am very proud of my guys and that win. I believe we have matured and learned how to deal with adversity. These two points will make us a better team in 2017.”
Making up the Blue Devil roster this season are: seniors Dylan Putman, Shaddon Peavyhouse, Jay Johnson, Cameron Spires, Justin Laughren and Nick Fender; juniors Owen Nicholson, Hunter Higgins, Matthew Hatcher, Caleb Wilson, Raben Reed, Troy Podvin and Clay Simpson; and sophomores Brett Strother and Caleb Crain. Assistant coaches are Travis Griffith and Brad Tapp.
As of The Erwin Record’s press deadline, the Blue Devils are 3-1. In addition to defeating the Cyclones, they have defeated Madison County twice and lost at Sullivan South on Monday, March 20.
The Blue Devils hosted Johnson County on Tuesday, March 21, following The Erwin Record’s press deadline. They are scheduled to host Daniel Boone at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 24, travel to Morristown East on Saturday, March 25, at 1 p.m., travel to Sullivan East on Monday, March 27, at 6 p.m. and host Happy Valley on Tuesday, March 28, at 6 p.m.
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Making up the Blue Devil junior varsity squad are: sophomores Gavin Casey, Keaton Casey, Drew Keasling, Garrett Manuel and Austin O’Dell.; and freshmen Caleb Adkins, Ramon Avila, Dakota Bell, Jacob Fenton-Schrek, Brett Lingerfelt, LJ Mitchell, Boone Reed, Darren Soulier, Noah Tilson and Peyton Whitson.
The junior varsity team is coached by Jonathan Kenney and Ben Peterson.