By Trey Williams
After overcoming long odds to return to the state tournament for the second straight season, Science Hill’s baseball program suddenly looks like a good bet for a three-peat next year.
The underdog Hilltoppers rode an overhauled roster all the way to Murfreesboro this season. They went 27-14 despite replacing four of their top five pitchers and six position players from last season’s 35-9 team.
It was one of the most gratifying seasons for 12th-year coach Ryan Edwards, who also passed John Broyles to become the program’s all-time victories leader.
“Absolutely it was,” Edwards said. “I would call it kind of humbling – to see the kids come together and stick with the process of coming together. The talent was there. It was just the confidence in their ability to know that they could play at that level, because there was not much experience on that team at all.
“The pitching staff, not one guy had thrown an inning in the postseason the year before. And we had 62 innings pitched in the postseason (in 2018). So it was all new guys in that role. And we really only had 3-4 hitters that had a whole lot of experience.”
Expectations will rise next season. Center fielder Caleb Marmo, a Wake Forest commitment, shortstop/pitcher Landon Slemp and first baseman Matthew Levi will headline a significantly more experienced roster.
A swift, strong-armed center fielder, Marmo led the ‘Toppers in stolen bases (30-34), home runs (five) and triples (four).
Slemp (7-0, four saves, 2.10 ERA) was first in RBIs (37) and doubles (13) and second in batting (.358). Levi led the team in batting (.381) and slugging (.496).
“We should be (better next season),” Edwards said. “We’ve got Matthew Levi, Landon Slemp and Caleb Marmo all back, along with Conner Hyatt, Jack Torbett and Dustin Eatmon and Cole Torbett, who both pitched a lot of innings for us down the stretch. Cole was just a freshman and Dustin was a sophomore.”
Cole Torbett, a left-hander, was 5-1 with a save and a 2.67 ERA as a freshman. Eatmon was 3-1 with a 2.55 ERA.
Jack Torbett went 3-for-6 while tallying a team-high four RBIs in two state tournament games. And Hyatt’s three-run home run gave the ‘Toppers a 7-4 lead in the fourth inning of their 8-7, eight-inning sectional victory at Hardin Valley. The potent Hawks had beaten eventual state champion Farragut in the regional title game two days earlier.
Of course, the way Science Hill won that state-clinching game better captured the essence of this team than Hyatt’s home run. Alex Elmore, who waited his turn in the program, walked in the eighth and received the sign to break for second as soon as impressive left-handed pitcher Alex Dunlap lifted his foot.
Edwards was betting on Elmore reaching second before the first baseman could throw him out. The first baseman threw the ball into the outfield and Elmore scored all the way from first.
It was a fitting state-sealer for a team that hit 12 home runs in 41 games. Granted, Science Hill does play home games in the spacious TVA Credit Union Ballpark, but Edwards noted more than once this season that Science Hill alum Will Craig had more home runs in 2019 for Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis than the Hilltoppers had collectively.
For a moment it looked like Science Hill would have two out and none on when Elmore was dashing toward second.
“Instead, he scores,” Edwards said. “And you talk about deflating them – because we didn’t even have a hit off that lefty, I don’t think. At that point in the game he’d been in there for two or three innings.”
Hardin Valley nearly seized control in the sixth. With the score tied, 7-7, in the bottom of the sixth, the Hawks had the bases loaded with two outs and Science Hill pitcher Drew Honeycutt had a 1-0 count when Edwards visited the mound.
He told Honeycutt to trust his fastball, throw strikes and let the chips fall where they may. Honeycutt responded with two more balls, but battled back with three straight strikes, including a swinging strike on a full count to end the inning.
“He kept it tied,” Edwards said, “and then he settled in and shut ‘em down … one, two, three in the eighth.”
Science Hill rallied for several improbable victories during the season, and Edwards often noted the Hilltoppers’ collective cool under pressure.
Slemp and Torbett were Nos. 1 and 2 on the mound, respectively, in victories. Andrew Miller (4-3, two saves, 2.57 ERA), Honeycutt (4-3, three saves), Eatmon (3-1, 2.55 ERA) and Garrett Gleason (2-1, two saves, 2.73 ERA) had productive seasons.
“They just really bought into believing in their stuff, not trying to do too much with it and just attacking the strike zone with whatever they had,” Edwards said. “It wasn’t like we had anybody throwing 90 to 92 (mph) or anything like that. … There were six of ‘em down the stretch that we were depending on. Any one of the six, I was just as confident in as the others.”
Edwards wasn’t shocked by his team’s accomplishments, which included a district tournament title and second-place finishes in the Big Seven Conference and the regional tournament.
“The pieces were there if you could just get ‘em to come together at the right time,” Edwards said. “Our district was tough. I mean Tennessee High just about upended Farragut in that (sectional) game. And if it’d been Boone or Dobyns-Bennett that got out, I could’ve seen either one of them get hot at the right time, too. It was a dogfight just to get out of the district tournament, and I think that helped prepare us for that region week.”
Senior Cade McCoy, who played varsity four seasons, finished the season second in runs (40) and stolen bases (9-for-11), and played well defensively on the left side of the infield. Elmore was second in doubles (10) and third in stolen bases (8-for-8).
“Our seniors led us,” Edwards said. “Cade was basically our glue when it came to a guy we looked to as a leader and all that. … When we weren’t playing well they didn’t panic. They kept believing in the coaching staff and they kept believing in themselves, and I think that carried over to the rest of the kids. And they worked really hard from day one all the way through.”