Every high school baseball coach entered the 2021 season with some level of uncertainty after the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the previous campaign just at the start.
The 2022 season marks a return to normal, but there will still be a lot to iron out in the early weeks as teams across the region adjust to new lineups and pitching teams.
Some teams seem better suited than others. A few have legitimate deep playoff aspirations while others could play their part if they uncover any unknowns.
Here’s a look at how local teams are shaping up as baseball season kicks off today:
Coach: Robbie Bennett (21st season)
Record 2021: 19-13 (eliminated by Maryville in the District 4-AAA tournament)
Key players: Luke Johnson (Sr.), Nolan Cunningham (Sr.), Zach Hodge (Sr.), Zander Melton (Jr.), Kaden Adsit (Jr.)
Prognosis/Comment: Heritage was slow to get going a year ago, losing seven of its first 10 games before picking up eight straight wins. The Mountaineers are hoping to avoid another slow start to the season, and they have the talent to do so despite losing as much talent as any team in the region in the past two years – Kameron Johnson, Hayden Gilliland and Spencer Williams to name a few. Heritage is returning four starters from last year’s team — a group highlighted by Middle Tennessee State signing Luke Johnson — but the remaining turnover means a lot of competition. The Mountaineers believe the battle for playing time will be an advantage throughout the season.
Bennet says: “Obviously you have to control what you can control. We’re just gonna keep developing guys and roll up our sleeves and go to work. I feel like we have a very good ball club this year. We’re returning a lot of guys who’ve played, so I’m pretty excited about that.
Coach: Adam Sullivan (seventh season)
Record 2021: 25-11-1 (eliminated by Farragut in the District 4-AAA losers’ bracket semi-final)
Key players: Riley Orr (Sr.), Daniel Hughes (Sr.), Justin Millsaps (Sr.), Isaiah French (Jr.), Landon Dockery (Jr.), Cade Batchelor (Soph.)
Prognosis/Comment: No team in the region can boast of having as much talent as the Rebels after losing a victory before a place in a regional tournament a year ago. Maryville has lost a handful of important seniors – headlined by Daily Times pitcher of the year Josh Seiler last year – but it comes down to several key things. A range of left-handed pitchers stand out, which has led to some of Adam Sullivan’s most successful seasons as a coach, but the Rebels also have quality right-handers and deep training.
Sullivan says: “I don’t care who you are, the experience is huge, I’ve had teams in the past that got killed, but there were a ton of sophomores, and at the time those guys were juniors and seniors, they were legit. I expect us to be more like veterans. I think they understand what I want and expect, and I think that’s half the battle for a coach, especially for me because I’m pretty tough on guys because I’ve seen some really good teams and coached some really good teams so I know what it should be like sometimes it’s hard to achieve , but I think this team can handle it.
Coach: Justin Young (11th season)
Record 2021: 13-21 (eliminated by Maryville in the District 4-AAA tournament)
Key players: Rohde Kirkland (Sr.), Will Vance (Sr.), Justin Bell (Jr.), Kendall Brewer (Jr.), Brooks Bird (Soph.)
Prognosis/Comment: William Blount had his issues a year ago, but pitching depth wasn’t one of them. This season is a different story as the Governors try to figure out who will fill out their rotation after Jacob Patterson, Avery Crabtree and Brandon Coggin all graduate. William Blount enjoys a healthy Justin Bell after suffering a season-ending injury a year ago. The roster also has a massive hole to fill after Colby Abbott’s graduation.
Young says: “I feel good with Rohde Kirkland and Justin Bell. Those two guys are going to be solid at the top. Kendall Brewer will be our No. of college experience. After that, we don’t know. We’re trying to find numbers 5, 6 and 7 because I preach to my guys that when you play as many games as we do against the competition that we do, we need to eight to 10 arms that can throw punches and take people out.”
Coach: Kyle Koeneman (seventh season)
Record 2021: 32-4 (District 2-AAA champion, Region 1-AAA runner-up, lost to Farragut in Class AAA sections)
Key players: AJ Berry (Sr.), Aaron Webb (Sr.), Alexander Hutcherson (Sr.), Drew Childress (Fr.)
Prognosis/Comment: Seymour can deny his performance against Science Hill in the 1-AAA Region Championship game that saw him face Farragut in the Class AAA sections, but that did nothing to take away how dominant the Eagles were. one year ago. Now Seymour is tasked with finding a way to emulate that success despite the immense amount of talent he lost as Class AAA Mr. Baseball runner-up Derek McCarley – the first in program history – Elijah Galyon and a few others leave huge shoes to fill.
Coach: Steve Dunn (19th season)
Record 2021: 25-12-1 (4-AA District champion, lost to Gibbs in 2-AA Region Semifinals)
Key players: Colton Whaley (Sr.), Nate Hartless (Sr.), Isaac Whitehead (Sr.), Dalton Fiegle (Sr.), Andrew Henry (Jr.)
Prognosis/Comment: Alcoa hasn’t had to worry about its leadership over the years with Will Shelton, Ty Boyd, Riley Heaton, Ryan Whitson and Thai Love – to name a few – acting as cornerstones. The Tornadoes come into the season wondering who on their roster can fill those shoes. Alcoa will be a talented group capable of competing for a spot in a state tournament if a few seniors step in and accept that role.
Dunn says: “Like all coaches, we try to understand what the game means to certain children. At least in my opinion, there is a fundamental difference between being a baseball player and being someone who just plays baseball. We’re basically asking guys to be ballplayers and not just guys that play baseball because you can win with good ballplayers but you’re going to have a hard time winning with guys that play fair and don’t put not what they need to put in to produce.
Coach: Justin Ridenour (third season)
Record 2021: 13-17 (District 2-A champion, lost to University High in Region 1-A semifinals)
Key players: Brady Collins (Jr.), Tyler Frazier (Jr.), Caden Lawson (Soph.), Kooper Williams (Soph.), Carson Moore (Fr.)
Prognosis/Comment: In their first full season under Justin Ridenour, the Cherokees took an important first step as a program, dominating their district despite their youth. Greenback is returning most of its key players from a year ago and plans to not only win another district championship, but also add some additional gear. Caden Lawson, Kooper Williams and junior Brady Collins once again headline a pitching staff looking to stifle opposing bats as the Cherokees cruise through runs with their small-ball approach.
Ridenour says: “These guys know the expectations when wearing a Greenback shirt and they know it takes a lot of hard work. I think they got a taste of it last year, which was really good, and now I’ve seen that they want to compete even more, improve and come to training every day ready to to go to work. So far I have really liked their attitude and effort.
The King’s Academy Lions
Coach: Matt Storm (first season)
Record 2021: 18-18 (lost to CPA in Division II-A quarter-finals)
Key players: Nahzir Bergen (Sr.), Ethan Ridderstap (Sr.), Riley Webber (Jr.), Zac Wallace (Soph.), Aidan Murphy (Fr.), Ryder Strom (Fr.)
Prognosis/Comment: The King’s Academy have lost a talented group of seniors from last season’s side led by Mitch Turner, but that doesn’t mean the Lions are entering a rebuild under Matt Storm. Nahzir Bergen and Ethan Ridderstap were two of TKA’s best players a year ago, and the infusion of potential-laden freshmen like Ryder Storm and Aidan Murphy gives the Lions a chance for similar success this season. .
Storm says: “I think we are going to surprise some people. I just want a good performance from these guys. I want development and everyone to buy into what we’re doing here because if you win, more people will want a piece of it. It’s just a matter of following the process and trusting it.
National Association of Christian Athletes
Maryville Christian Eagles
Coach: Andrew Sylvester (first season)
Key players: Ethan Davis (Sr.), Tanner Jarvis (Jr.), Jackson DeBusk (Jr.)
Prognosis/Comment: Maryville Christian is returning five players from a year ago. The rest of his roster is made up of players who have never played an inning of college baseball. The Eagles believe they can build on some of the success they had a year ago, but they also understand the program won’t get where they want it to overnight.
Sylvester says: “I expect us to go out there and have the mentality to go out there and hope to win, but in the end if things don’t go our way I try to stay dude. positive side and tell them that these other kids have been playing and training baseball since they were five years old and we’re just starting to do it. It’s definitely a tricky situation to have the mentality of always wanting to win , but also to know that we are growing and that we are only just beginning.