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Gillis: Blue Devil baseball team is young, ‘but can play’

The 2020 Unicoi County High School Blue Devil baseball team includes, pictured from left, back row, assistant coach Keith Greer, assistant coach Travis Griffith, Isaiah Smith, Ramon Avila, Lucas Slagle, Peyton Whitson, LJ Mitchell and head coach Chad Gillis; front row, Brayden Hendrickson, Valentin Batrez, Darren Soulier, Will Hensley, Kaleb Metcalf, Gavyn Sawyer and Jordan Bridges. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

*Editor’s note: With local schools closed due to coronavirus (COVID-19) concerns, all 2020 spring sports seasons are currently on hold. However, The Erwin Record still wanted to recognize Unicoi County High School teams and players with this annual section.

By Trey Williams

Unicoi County baseball coach Chad Gillis has his youngest team to date, but he isn’t green with envy.

The Blue Devils lineup includes three freshmen and a sophomore, and three of those four hit in the top four of the order.

“This is the youngest team I’ve had,” Gillis said. “This is my sixth year. Caleb Wilson and those guys were really young when they started. And I’m kind of back to that now.

“I’ve got a freshman behind the plate, a freshman at third, a sophomore at short and a freshman at first. … But they’re good. So that helps.”

Sophomore leadoff batter Gavyn Sawyer plays shortstop. His family moved from Asheville in October.

“Sawyer is a good player,” Gillis said. “He kind of fell into our lap. His family wanted to make a move and they moved over here to Unicoi probably in October. I met up with him and he said he wanted to play ball. I’m like, ‘Alright.’ Day one we’re like, ‘Ooh. Okay.’

“I’m telling you man, this kid, he’s something special. He brings a lot of energy. And his bat, to be a sophomore … there’s no pressure to him. Everything’s fun. He’s just good to have around.”

Freshman Lucas Slagle averaged a double-double on the basketball court this season, and his upside in baseball is supposedly even higher. A cousin of former Blue Devils Clay and Conner Simpson, the 6-foot-4 Slagle already has low-80s velocity and power at the plate. He tallied a home run and five RBIs through the first four games despite just getting into the swing of things due to basketball

“His swing’s a little off right now,” Gillis said. “He’s working on his timing. But that kid can hit it. He’s an athlete.”

Gillis will err on the side of caution with Slagle on the mound.

“I haven’t seen anything on the radar,” Gillis said. “We’re still getting his arm a hundred percent ready to pitch. But he can throw it; don’t get me wrong.”

Another freshman beyond his years is Valentin Batrez. He’s hitting .429 with two doubles in four games.

“Coach (Travis) Griffith spent a lot of time with him behind the plate (in the offseason),” Gillis said. “He spent a lot of time with him as far as technique, blocking and things like that.

“He threw out the leadoff guy against (Sullivan) East the other night and he’s thrown out a couple of more in there, too. And he’s another one – pressure doesn’t faze him. He came up with a big hit and couple of RBIs (in a 7-6 win) against Crockett. He hits the ball hard, he’s smooth. He’s a laid-back kid that just plays ball.”

Freshmen third baseman Brayden Hendrickson started the season 4-for-11 with two RBIs and two stolen bases.

“He moves well,” Gillis said. “He’s got good hands. He could be a middle infielder. But with Sawyer moving in in October we saw he might fit a little better at shortstop. And Brayden has a cannon for an arm. So we moved him to third.

“He plays third a lot in the summer. So it wasn’t anything new for him. He made a play (at West Greene) parallel to the ground, laid flat out. He catches a ball and almost throws a kid out from his knees.”

Hendrickson scored Batrez with a safety squeeze bunt against Crockett.

Senior pitcher-outfielder Peyton Whitson got off to a hot start before suffering an off-the-field leg injury that could sideline him a month or longer. Whitson, who is committed to Roane State, struck out 12 in 6 1/3 innings in a 3-1 win against Sullivan East. He gave up five hits and one run.

“He was kind of a dominating arm to have on the mound,” Gillis said. “Peyton seems confident he’ll be back. I know he wants to be back. He’s gonna do what he has to do to get back on the field for his senior year.”

Juniors Kaleb Metcalf and Jordan Bridges will be the conference starters on the mound without Whitson. Metcalf allowed four runs in six innings in a 4-0 loss at Sullivan East in the season opener. He gave up seven hits and one walk while striking out two.

Bridges, who also plays center field, pitched two-thirds of an inning for a save against Sullivan East and pitched 6 1/3 innings against David Crockett.

Metcalf and Bridges bat fifth and six, respectively, in the lineup. Metcalf went 3-for-4 and came through with a walk-off single in a win against David Crockett.

Seniors in the lineup include pitcher-second baseman Ramon Avila and L.J. Mitchell. Avila bats second and is a capable pitcher. He allowed three runs in 5 1/3 innings in his first start of the season.

“Avila is a player,” Gillis said. “You cut those lights on and Avila’s gonna give you everything he’s got. Metcalf’s the same way. Mitchell, all those kids (are the same way).”

Senior Darren Soulier moved into the lineup with Whitson out. Sophomore Isaiah Smith and junior Matthew Hensley will also see time.

Gillis rates Elizabethton as the Three Rivers Conference favorite, followed by a potential logjam with Sullivan East, Sullivan South and the Blue Devils.

“When we play these conference games, anybody can beat anybody on a given day,” Gillis said. “Everybody gets fired up, I feel like, to play us and we get their best every time. We never get to catch anybody on a bad day, it doesn’t seem like.

“East is good. Us splitting that series with East was huge. … We are young, but these kids can play.”