By Trey Williams
The coronavirus pandemic turned the lights out on the Unicoi County High School baseball team’s 2020 season, but the future is still bright for the Blue Devils program.
Coach Chad Gillis was able to integrate his rising freshman class with the varsity players for three weeks in June. It was the first time Gillis was with his players since the season was canceled in March after a 2-2 start that included wins against Sullivan East and David Crockett.
Pitcher-first baseman Lucas Slagle and catcher Valentin Batrez were robbed of what were quickly shaping up to be fruitful freshman seasons, and talented transfer Gavyn Sawyer’s sophomore season at shortstop was not to be. Another freshman, Brayden Hendrickson, was starting at third base.
Despite the youth, Gillis expected to finish at or near the top of the Three Rivers Conference.
“The thing about that team was nothing positive or negative changed their demeanor,” Gillis said. “I’m starting three freshmen and they roll in to Sullivan East and get beat, and Tuesday they roll out after school focused and ready to go. The game before didn’t matter. And that’s hard to teach some of these guys, especially with baseball, because it’s one game right after the next. They come out and win a game in the rain (against East) and then turn around and beat Crockett. … We were improving every day.”
The 6-foot-4 Slagle, who averaged a double-double for the varsity as a freshman in basketball, already has low-80s velocity and power at the plate. Slagle and Hendrickson play for the travel-ball East Tennessee Crusaders, an organization which Gillis respects.
In fact, he said he’s especially happy all of his players are playing travel ball after being denied a school season during the spring. Slagle has been pitching on Sundays this summer.
“That tells me he’s throwing championship games on the weekends,” Gillis said. “He said he was hitting it okay, and then the other day right before dead period he said he was starting to hit it well. … He’s a special player. I didn’t get to see a lot of him, because we’d only got four games in, and I don’t think he was comfortable with his swing yet.
“He’s a huge target at first base. He’s got a good attitude. He’s willing to learn. He’s a great teammate. He’s one of those kids who’s just easy to coach. And the talent helps.”
Slagle could’ve been the Blue Devils most feared hitter, especially with Peyton Whitson out injured. He was batting third or fourth in the lineup.
“And that’s just the confidence I had from seeing him swing in the cages and in BP,” Gillis said. “I had a lot of confidence that he would be successful. And again, Valentin Batrez was right there with him. He was hitting three- or four- or five-hole. He was hitting something like .429 during the season.”
Two rising freshmen, Chris Chavez and Nikki Satterly, could start next season. Chavez is expected to start at second base. Satterly, a catcher in middle school, worked out with Gillis’ nine-man group in the outfield in June.
“That whole freshmen group is really talented, from Chavez all the way down,” Gillis said. “Satterly’s a catcher and outfielder. I think he can pitch a little bit. I wanted to see what he could do in the outfield, and he was good. He stepped up and made plays. The first week out I’m like, ‘Man, this kid can move.’ He’s good going left, right, and he judges the ball well.”
Gillis was thankful for the June workouts for a variety of reasons. Three groups with nine players and one coach worked out separately the first two weeks (players’ temperatures were taken along with other pandemic protocol measures), and everyone was able to get together the final week.
“It was just good to get together after not seeing all those guys since (mid-March),” Gillis said. “Not being on the field with those guys for that long was definitely – I don’t even know what word to put there to explain the feelings I’ve had.”
The Blue Devils were able to have intra-squad scrimmages the final week. Unlike basketball and football, baseball can be played with social distancing. And with the virus’ recent resurgence, Gillis can’t help but wonder if there’s still a chance baseball could be moved to the fall.
“I haven’t heard that anymore (since spring),” Gillis said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, with cases rising and the threat of quarantining people for 14 days if they go to certain states. It seems like we’re taking a couple of steps backward. To me it makes sense. …
“Basketball still couldn’t do anything (competitively). Football couldn’t do 7-on-7. We had an intra-squad, just because we were allowed to do so. You would think that the TSSAA would have to look at that, especially with the changes that are occurring now. If the cases go down or whatever, it would still give them time to get that football season in. … But to give yourself a better chance at that (football) money, I think they’ll have to look at it.”
Amid all of the uncertainty, there’s one thing Gillis knows for sure: “I wouldn’t want to be the guy making the decision. Either way you go you could mess up. If you open up too quickly and somebody gets sick, it comes back on you. You’re the hero if you open up and nothing happens and everything goes smoothly. They have to protect themselves, for sure.”
Actually, there’s something else of which Gillis is certain.
“We’ve got a lot,” he said, “of good, young baseball players.”