By Trey Williams
The future is bright for the Unicoi County baseball team, but the outlook is certainly shaded by the graduation of Travis Whitson, Kaleb Metcalf and Jordan Bridges.
The trio led a young team coming off a canceled season in 2020 within a win of a state tournament berth.
The 19-14 season came to an end with a 3-0 sectional loss at Gibbs on Friday. The high point of year was going through the District 1-AA tournament unblemished for a championship.
“We had a tremendous season and I feel good about the future,” seventh-year coach Chad Gillis said. “But we’re gonna miss those seniors. They did everything we asked ‘em to do. They led by example. They had good attitudes. They helped those younger guys along. They’re coaches on the field, basically, and I’m gonna miss ‘em.”
Whitson went 5-4 with a 1.86 ERA. He allowed 27 hits and 37 walks while striking out 93 in 48 1/3 innings.
Whitson was also one of the key hitters after a slow start. He hit .354 – second on the team to talented sophomore catcher Valentin Batrez (.462) – with two home runs, 14 RBIs and a team-high 23 walks.
“Whitson did a lot on the mound and he ended up hitting about .350,” Gillis said. “He was huge.”
Whitson and another promising sophomore, Lucas Slagle, each pitched three innings while combining for 11 strikeouts and limiting Gibbs to three unearned runs.
Of course, they got some help from Metcalf, who made an inning-ending, bases-loaded catch against the fence.
“Kaleb made that catch in the outfield with, like, no fear getting up on that fence,” Gillis said. “And he’s been that way the whole season. He’s made great catches in the outfield. He’s done well on the mound.”
Metcalf went 6-3 on the mound with a 4.63 ERA. He allowed 55 hits and 11 walks while striking out 48 in 56 1/3 innings.
“It meant a lot getting the team back into the Sweet 16 (sectional),” Metcalf said, “and I think it gives all the guys coming back confidence to go out and do great things again next year. Being a leader with a super-young group was something I thought at the start of the season could be a challenge, but I believe they all stepped up and played their part in making us successful and they done everything they could to win.”
Metcalf was quick to credit Gillis for guiding a young team that took on a stringent schedule that included Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett, Tennessee High, Daniel Boone and a home-and-home with top-ranked (Class AA) Pigeon Forge.
“Having Coach Gillis as our coach was fantastic,” Metcalf said. “He had experience with pitching and it shows in how he taught us. I feel like what he taught us made our job on the field easier.”
Bridges was the outfield’s anchor in center and had his moments on the mound. He went 3-3 with 3.76 ERA and struck out 40 in 40 2/3 innings. Bridges’ 15 stolen bases were second behind junior shortstop Gavyn Sawyer (18).
“Heck, if a ball went up anywhere from foul line to foul line, Bridges might run it down,” Gillis said. “He’s tough to replace, a tremendous outfielder and pitcher.”
The Blue Devils mustered only one hit against Gibbs pitcher Reilly Byers. Sawyer delivered it.
“Hats off to Byers,” Gillis said. “He’s a great pitcher. But I really felt like we had a chance. We got some on, but couldn’t get ‘em in.
“Lucas and Whitson threw their guts out. We struck ‘em out 11 times.
Lucas was throwing in the middle 80s with a good breaking ball. They kept chasing it. And Whitson blew it by ‘em.”
Several defensive miscues proved fatal.
“If we can field and throw a bunt,” Gillis said, “heck, we may still be playing.”
The senior class included Adam Lewis.
“Adam was a great teammate,” Gillis said. “He filled a role. We enjoyed having him around. He’s a great kid.”
Batrez and Slagle headline this year’s exceptional sophomore class. Batrez hit .462 to lead the team (Whitson was a distant second at .354.) Batrez led the team in doubles (14) and RBIs (27) and was second in home runs (six).
Slagle led the team in home runs (eight) and was second with 26 RBIs. Slagle was 4-2 with a 3.12 ERA. He struck out 48 in 43 1/3 innings while giving up 35 hits and 15 walks.
“They’ve got a chance to be very good players,” Gillis said.
Another strong-armed sophomore is Brayden Hendrickson. Gillis elected to rest him on the mound this season due to some preseason arm pain, but Hendrickson was third on the team with a .301 average.
“Brayden has a tremendous arm,” Gillis said.
Chris Chavez is another strong-armed infielder. He put together an impressive freshman season. Chavez’s on-base percentage (.402) was third among Blue Devils.
Chavez and Batrez each had two of the Blue Devils’ seven hits in a 9-4 loss to Sullivan South in the regional championship game on Wednesday.
Sophomore right fielder Alex Green made a difficult game-ending catch to preserve the Blue Devils’ 6-4 defeat of Elizabethton in the winners’ bracket final of the district tournament.
So Gillis is eager to see where the ceiling is for the Devils in the next two seasons. For that matter, so are the seniors.
“I think the future for the team is super-bright with the guys that are coming back,” Metcalf said. “If they put their heads down and battle, they can be as successful as we were this year.”