By Keeli Parkey
The Unicoi County High School baseball team (13-7, 7-1) took its show on the road last week.
Head coach Chad Gillis’ Blue Devils played four games in three days against some of the top baseball programs in East Tennessee as part of the Smoky Mountain Invitational.
First, UCHS dropped a close game at Jefferson County on Thursday, April 12.
“We got down 3-0 in the first inning,” Gillis said. “We never responded until the fourth inning with Clay Simpson’s solo home run.”
Timely hitting and good defense put the Blue Devils back in the game as they scored four runs in the sixth inning to take a 5-4 lead.
“An error cost us the tying run and we couldn’t get a run across in the top of the seventh,” Gillis said.
In the bottom of the seventh, Jefferson County won the game, 6-5, on a walk-off home run.
“It was disheartening to fight so hard and lose on a walk-off, but I am extremely proud of how we never gave up and continued to play even when we were down,” Gillis said. “We are maturing as a team and have good things ahead of us if we can learn from our mistakes. Jefferson County has a good program and we fought them until the end.”
Pitcher Keaton Casey lost his first game of the season against Jefferson County. The junior also went 1-2 at the plate on Thursday. Senior Hunter Higgins was 2-4.
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The following day, a poor performance led to a 6-0 loss at Pigeon Forge – a possible opponent for the Blue Devils in the postseason.
“We just didn’t play well against Pigeon Forge,” Gillis said. “Defensively, we made the plays we needed to, but Pigeon Forge basically bunted on us at will. They had well-placed bunts all night and would follow that with a soft base hit.”
Senior pitcher Troy Podvin took the loss.
“Troy gave up six runs on six hits, but we couldn’t manage to get a run across the plate to support him. We hit the ball most of the night, just right at people. We did face their number two guy on the mound and got to see what they have. We hope to see them again down the road.”
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Senior pitcher Caleb Crain earned his first varsity win on Saturday, April 14, in a 19-8 victory at Sevier County.
“We came out swinging versus Sevier County,” Gillis said. “We ended the game with 19 runs on 19 hits. We had some great performances on the mound and hit the ball all day. It was good to see these guys respond this way after getting shut out the night before. The kids had fun today and were very aggressive at the plate.”
Senior Caleb Wilson was 3-5, including a home run, at the plate. Podvin was 3-5. Senior Owen Nicholson was 2-4. Junior Drew Keasling was 4-6.
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The Blue Devils’ second win of the day on Saturday came at Seymour.
“Seymour has been a hot team in AAA lately, they are known for their offense,” Gillis said. “We scored four early, with Owen leading the game off with a solo home run. … We faced some good pitching and just executed with runners on base. Our defense and pitching kept them back offensively and never really gave them a chance to rally. Seymour backed off their aggressive style after Drew Keasling threw their best runner out on a steal and Keaton Casey threw out a good runner at the plate from right field.”
Senior pitcher Raben Reed (2-1) earned the win in an 8-4 decision.
“Raben did work on the mound,” Gillis said. “He didn’t have his best, but he gave us a chance to win and that’s all you can ask from a pitcher.”
Simpson was 3-4 at the plate with a home run. Junior Brett Strother was 3-4. Nicholson was 2-4 with a home run.
“We worked today to get two good wins against two respected AAA teams,” Gillis said of his team’s performance on Saturday.
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UCHS opened last week with back-to-back victories over Happy Valley in Three Rivers Conference action.
On Tuesday, April 10, Simpson’s (3-0) performance on the mound lifted a sluggish UCHS offense to a 2-0 victory.
“Clay had a dominating game on the mound,” Gillis said. “He gave up a single hit in the seventh inning, this hit would be Valley’s only hit of the game. Clay ended with 14 strikeouts, 2 walks and 1 hit and played a huge part in this team win. We were not hitting the ball at all. We scratched two runs on the board and that’s all he needed to get us a win.”
One of the runs came on a solo home run by Wilson.
The Blue Devils were a different team when they faced the Warriors at Happy Valley the following day.
“Caleb Wilson (4-1) pitched a one-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts and set the tone for the entire game,” Gillis said. “We came out and put five runs up in the top of the first inning. We continued to put runs up every inning after that. We decided to have a different approach at the plate today and took the ball more often. We played great defense and kept a high energy level the entire game. I am very proud of how we showed up tonight after a less than stellar offensive night last night. We must bring this energy every game – that will be the test.”
Wilson was 2-4 with a home run. Nicholas was 3-3. Sophomore Peyton Whitson, Simpson and Casey were all 2-3 in the win.
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The Blue Devils were scheduled to travel to Sullivan Central to face the Cougars in conference play on Tuesday, April 17, after The Erwin Record’s press deadline. They will play the Cougars again, this time in Erwin, on Wednesday, April 18, at 5:30 p.m. in a game that was rescheduled from Monday.
UCHS will host West Greene at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 19, and Cherokee at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, in non-conference play.
The Blue Devils will face conference foe Elizabethton in Erwin on Monday, April 23, at 6 p.m. and in Carter County on Tuesday, April 24, at 7 p.m.