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Strong offense returns to diamond for Blue Devil baseball team

The 2018 Unicoi County High School varsity baseball team includes, pictured from left, back row, head coach Chad Gillis, Hunter Higgins, Austin O’Dell, Peyton Whitson, Clay Simpson, Troy Podvin, Brett Strother, assistant coach Travis Griffith and assistant coach Greg Van Tassel; front row, Owen Nicholson, Caleb Crain, Ramon Avila, Keaton Casey, Caleb Wilson, Garrett Manuel, Drew Keasling, Gavin Casey and Raben Reed. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Keeli Parkey

Exiting the postseason in the district tournament last season was a disappointment for the Unicoi County High School baseball team. Heading into this season, that has the Blue Devils more motivated than ever.

“We have to play as a team,” Blue Devil head coach Chad Gillis said. “I think that last year – and we’ve had conversations about this – we thought we could just show up and win because we were the most talented. I think that this season we could be the most talented team, but we have to show up and battle every day. We can’t act like we are just going to stand on the field and win a game. As long as we are eager and go on the field ready to battle and win ball games, I think we will be OK. If we get too complacent, that’s when you start getting beat. The district was unfortunate, but we definitely use it as a reminder for the guys and they have responded.”

UCHS turned in two solid performances in preseason scrimmages against David Crockett and Hampton, winning both and scoring a total of 33 runs.

“That was prior to the basketball guys joining us,” Gillis said. “The guys we have who aren’t basketball players did very well. A couple of them stepped up and definitely earned some playing time this season. We hit the ball really well. We did a good job defensively and we pitched well.”

Gillis said he believes the 2018 Blue Devils will be able to get a lot of hits and put a lot of runs on the scoreboard.

“We have hit the ball well the last few years,” Gillis said.”We have speed and we have guys who have gotten stronger and are hitting the ball harder and farther than they have in the past. I expect us to get 10 or more hits per game – a lot like we did last year. We should be able to score a lot of runs. We have executed offensive plays well, so far.”

Six seniors – Hunter Higgins, Owen Nicholson, Troy Podvin, Raben Reed, Clay Simpson and Caleb Wilson – will lead the Blue Devils in 2018.

Higgins, a four year starter, is defensive anchor of the team from his spot behind the plate, according to Gillis.

“Hunter has done a tremendous job in his four years here,” Gills said. “He is like a coach on the field … he’s a great captain out there, which is a big plus, especially behind the plate.”

Podvin, Simpson and Wilson will be expected to throw a lot of innings this season. All come in with a lot of experience under their belts, according to Gillis.

“We have guys who are proven winners at the varsity level and I have a lot of confidence in them,” the head coach added.

When not pitching, Podvin will play third base and Wilson will play in the outfield.

Nicholson will play at shortstop, moving there from second base. Reed will play in the outfield and should see time on the mound, as well.

“I feel like I have the biggest group of talented seniors in the conference,” Gillis said.

Junior Caleb Crain will start at second base and junior Garrett Manuel will play at first base.

“Caleb has been with us since he was a freshman and has earned the opportunity to start,” Gillis said. “Garrett has had a great preseason. He plays good defense and hits the ball well.”

Junior Keaton Casey will play in center field. Fellow juniors Brett Strother and Gavin Casey will play in the outfield. All three could see time on the mound, as well.

Junior Austin O’Dell pitches and plays third base. Junior Drew Keasling plays third base and is the team’s backup catcher.

Sophomore Peyton Whitson played limited innings last season due to injury. Gillis said he expects Whitson to be dominant on the mound this season. Sophomore Ramon Avila will play in the infield.

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The Blue Devils will compete in a league against Elizabethton, Happy Valley, Johnson County, Sullivan Central, Sullivan East and Sullivan South.

“From what I know so far, I think Elizabethton will be a team to beat,” Gillis said. “Everybody in the conference can play, but I think a lot of the dominant kids that we have seen the last three years have graduated. … Our expectations are to win conference and continue on as far as we can go. I think our mental approach is better. We’ve worked on that a lot in the offseason.”

Joining Gillis in the dugout this season are Travis Griffith, Keith Greer, Ben Peterson and Greg Van Tassel.

The junior varsity team includes: Jordan Bridges, Robbie O’Dell, Ezekiel Fulter, Will Hensley, Boone Reed, Noah Tilson, Dakoda Bell, Caleb Metcalf, Caleb Adkins, Darren Soulier, LJ Mitchell and Howard Hensdill.

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The varsity Blue Devils are 3-0 so far this season, having earned one win over Johnson County and two over Sullivan South – both conference opponents.

This week, UCHS will host North Buncombe on Thursday, March 22, at 6 p.m. and play in an in-school game at David Crockett on Friday, March 23. They are scheduled to travel to Sullivan East on Monday, March 26, at 6 p.m., then host East on Tuesday, March 27, at 6 p.m.