ROGERSVILLE – After experiencing necessary growing pains last year, Cherokee’s baseball team has gained experience and is ready to compete in the Big 7 Conference, says fifth-year coach Matt Carter.
“I think we’re going to be a whole heckuva lot better than last year,” Carter said. “We struggled a little bit last year with losing nine seniors the year before, so we had a lot of young guys playing.
“It kind of helped us out for this year due to the fact that they got a lot of experience. We had three freshmen playing, a couple sophomores and a couple juniors out there playing their first year on varsity. So we had a lot of new guys out there. They got that year under their belt with experience,” Carter said.
The Chiefs struggled through a 4-27 season in 2017 in gaining that experience. That out of the way, Carter says his squad has a whole new outlook now.
“They’re fighting. They’re competitors. They want to win. That’s something good to see after last year we kind of lost it a little bit. Losing nine seniors, JT (Brooks) going down, we just didn’t have that competitive edge. We’d give up a four- or five-spot and we were like, ‘All right, we’re done,’ where this year, they’re going to fight back.
“In the scrimmages we’ve played, it’s not a big deal anymore,” he said. “Last year, they were a little tentative, a little nervous, a little scared, and now they’ve got that year under their belt. It’s huge.”
Carter likes his lineup, led by senior Steve Owen.
“You go around our whole lineup and positionally, we’ve got a senior who is going to be outstanding in center in Steve Owen. Nick Collins at short was a sophomore last year, first year jumping in there, a junior this year. He’ll be our number one (pitcher),” Carter said.
“Ethan Crowder, senior, will be up the middle at short or second – or third. He was probably our most-experienced last year. He started as a sophomore. Conner Burke or Jesse Forgety at third. Jesse is a sophomore this year. He got a lot of experience last year. Burke is a senior.
“Dylan Johnson, a sophomore, got a lot of experience behind the plate last year. Hayden Long and Ethan Bledsoe, both juniors, are fighting for that first base position. So we’ve got a lot of experience and a lot of two-way guys,” said the coach.
Carter said the team’s overall strength has improved from consistent time in the weight room.
“I give a lot of credit to (football coach) Cody Baugh for the workouts and the thing that he’s done with our football program,” Carter said. “I’ve got a lot of guys in the strength and conditioning class that has made my job a lot easier. I can see it in my guys. We’re stronger. We’re faster. We compete more.
“I think all around, we’re going to be pretty solid. We’re going to have a really tough outfield. Japheth Curtsinger is coming back off an injury in football. He’ll be in right field with Stevie in center and Trey Courtney in left. That’s a pretty athletic outfield,” Carter said.
“Depending on who’s pitching, we’ll have Conner Burke at third or Ethan or Jesse at third, Nick Collins or Ethan at short. We’re going to be pretty good. We’ve got a lot of team speed. We’ve got some pop in the middle of our lineup. I think the top of our lineup is going to be pretty solid.
“Stevie leading us off can actually scoot. When he gets on first base, it’s a pretty sure thing with his aggressiveness and speed, he’s going to be on second. Ethan Crowder will behind him driving him in or moving him over. I’m pretty excited about what’s to come this year,” Carter said.
“We’re still working on lineup. It’s all going to be dictated by who’s on the mound. It’s probably going to be Stevie one-hole, Ethan, Nick Collins, Japheth Curtsinger, and Courtney.
“We have a sophomore, Ryan Morgan, who could be in the mix there. Ethan Bledsoe, Hayden Long flip-flopping, then Dylan Johnson, our catcher, rounding out the bottom of the lineup in the nine-hole. He’s another kind of leadoff guy, scrappy, puts the ball in play, a gap-to-gap guy,” Carter said.
Collins leads what Carter hopes will be a deep rotation.
“Nick Collins will be my one. Ethan Crowder will probably be my two. Steve Owen will probably be my three. Toss-up there, three-four-five it could be anywhere from Steve-O to Conner Burke to Jesse Forgety and Japeth Curtsinger,” Carter said.
“Five-six-seven could be Ethan Bledsoe, Trey Courtney. I’ve got three lefties that are freshmen. Two of them don’t throw very hard but they throw strikes and I’ve got one who throws it pretty good for a freshman. We’ve got a lot of depth, pitching-wise, which is good,” he said.
After competing for several years in the Inter Mountain Athletic Conference, Cherokee moves east to battle in the Big 7 Conference for the first time this season.
“We know Science Hill, Dobyns-Bennett, Daniel Boone are going to be the tough teams in the conference. But to us, playing in the IMAC, the IMAC is just as good,” Carter said. “In the past, we played the Jefferson Counties, we played the Sevier Counties, Morristown West, East. We’ve played them all. We’ve competed, we’ve done well.
“The good thing I like is they don’t know us. They don’t know much about us. We played Dobyns-Bennett last year. We played Science Hill in the region a couple years ago. We usually try to play Daniel Boone every year. Volunteer, we play every year as our rival and I’m looking forward to continuing that.
“Other than that, those teams don’t really know that much about us. Some of the other teams besides Volunteer and Boone, don’t really know much about us. So I’m excited. To me, that’s a good thing. We don’t know much about them, but they don’t know much about us,” Carter said.
While there’s excitement about playing in a new league, there’s also some nostalgia about the longtime rivalries being left behind.
“The thing with the IMAC that I liked was it seemed like every year, there was somebody different,” Carter said. “It wasn’t the same teams every year. Now, you had that, your Jefferson Counties and Sevier Counties and West, but there was always fighting going on. Even between seven and one, it was a close game.
“Over here, it’s kind of been Science Hill-D-B. I know last year, Tennessee High made a run. They had a really good arm on the mound. We just hope to go in there, surprise some people, open some eyes and gain a little respect and just play baseball. Play it hard and don’t worry about who you’re playing. Play our style of game,” Carter said.
Regardless of whether they’re playing in District 1 or District 2, the Chiefs will regularly go up against supreme talent on the upper-echelon teams of either conference. They’ve played and beaten the University of Tennessee’s Zach Linginfelter and Will Heflin when they played for Sevier County and Morristown West, respectively.
“We faced Linginfelter and beat him and he’s pitching for UT right now,” Carter said. “We beat a West team that had Will Heflin and he’s at UT. So we’ve beaten teams that have had the studs and this and that, but we’re not scared to play them. I think our guys are really excited and ready to showcase our abilities and our talents.
“Hopefully, they come in here thinking easy win and we’ll show them that it’s not going to be. As long as we compete, it doesn’t matter. I tell our guys, we don’t play an opponent, we just play the baseball. If we can catch it, if we can field it, if we can hit it and put pressure on teams, and play hard, we’re going to have success, no matter what the score says at the end of the day,” said Carter.
“As long as we play hard and play our style of game, I think good things are going to happen. I’m excited for this year. I think we’re going to do a lot of good things. We’ve got a lot of good leadership, some upper classmen who have stepped up. They’re holding each other accountable. They’re taking care of business. They’re getting after it every day,” he said.
“Pretty much top to bottom, I don’t see a hole in our lineup. We compete. We really compete. I’ve seen that out of these guys. Anything we do, I put a competition on it. We had a little controlled scrimmage and I put stipulations on it,” Carter said. “We’re just ready to lace it up and go play those guys and open some eyes early.”