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Gillis: Younger players gained experience during 2015 season

Coming up just shy of the big dance has the Blue Devils hungry for more.
“Every year, you always have the goal of going to state,” Unicoi County High School baseball coach Chad Gillis said. “That was our goal going into this year. We weren’t able to do that this year, but I’m extremely proud of our guys and the way they battled all season long.”
The Blue Devils entered the year having only three seniors with previous varsity experience. With the lack of depth, first-year players picked up slack at other spots and didn’t miss a beat, according to Gillis.
“It was the first-ever district tournament for a lot of our guys,” he said. “It was the first ever regional tournament and substate game. It was huge for them. After the game you could see the fire in their eyes and this season helped put a lot of substance into what I was telling them in the offseason.”
UCHS achieved 22 wins on the year and rattled off a late season rally heading into the postseason. The Blue Devils earned second place in the Three Rivers Conference, but came out of the gate swinging in the District 1-AA tournament to capture their third consecutive championship.
“We had our struggles during the season,” Gillis said. “We really turned the corner against David Crockett with 3-4 freshmen starting. You could see that spark and our guys come together. We were a different team after that.”
While the underclassmen pulled their weight, the seniors led the way in the postseason, Gillis said.
“Our seniors really took over in the district tournament,” he added. “Nathan (Derry) came in the first game in relief and pitched us to a win. Will Hubbard came alive for us hitting and Sam (McInturff) was a fighter on the mound. They were important during that run and really led our younger guys and gave them something to look up to.”
Cody Jack Rogers was also part of the senior core, but missed half of the season due to injury. The senior joined the team and also provided a key spark late in the year as a designated hitter, according to Gillis.
Now with the first-year jitters out of the way for many of the players, the expectations are high for the 2016 season.
“Our freshmen are coming in next year as veterans,” Gillis said, “and that’s always important. Guys like Hunter Higgins, Owen Nicholson, Caleb Wilson, Clay Simpson and Hunter Duncan – they all saw time as freshmen. We still have a long way to go but the future is bright.”
Gabe Thomas and Justin Laughren will look to anchor the infield next season, along with shortstop Shaddon Peavyhouse. Jacob Lynch is also back with the team after missing the remainder of the year due to injury.
A loaded group of freshmen coming in next year always helps, too.
“I think we’re at 13 freshmen for next season,” Gillis said. “I had a chance to watch them a couple of times this year and I talked to them a couple of days ago. They’re a talented, big group that’s eager to play.
“They know they have a chance to play as a freshmen. Our goal each game is to put the best we have on the field and they know they have a chance to play coming in.”
A busy summer awaits the Blue Devils. The team will take a week off before taking part in offseason tournaments.