By Trey Williams
Ryan Edwards’ ninth season coaching Science Hill baseball has been one of his two most frustrating.
The good news is the previous season causing such consternation concluded with a state tournament berth in 2010.
Granted, this team doesn’t have Daniel Norris, now in his second season with the Detroit Tigers, or Will Craig, Wake Forest’s reigning ACC player of the year. But a deep pitching staff that includes six left-handers and a solid lineup led by senior shortstop Jordan Holly looked like a good bet to win the Big Seven Conference and make a lengthy postseason run.
Instead, the Hilltoppers will open District 1-AAA tournament play on Saturday at Sullivan Central as the No. 2 seed thanks to three league losses. Fittingly, in what’s been an up-and-down campaign, the ‘Toppers squandered four-run leads in all three of those setbacks.
Rival Dobyns-Bennett overcame four-run deficits twice to sweep Science Hill. And Tennessee High trailed 4-0 in the fifth inning at Cardinal Park before rallying to salvage a regular-season split.
“It’s definitely been frustrating,” said Holly, a Walters State signee. “In the three years I’ve been starting, I mean, this is the team that probably had the most expectations. And to play the way that we have at times – just going up and down and blowing leads and stuff – the frustrating part is that we know we’re the best team in the conference.”
Edwards candidly assesses his mercurial team’s postseason prospects. The Hilltoppers could put together a state-tournament run, he says, or not advance beyond the district tournament.
Top-seeded Dobyns-Bennett gets a bye. Science Hill will open against last-place Volunteer on Saturday in an elimination game.
Winners of Saturday’s three first-round games advance to the double-elimination portion of the bracket with D-B. Science Hill is likely to be matched up with Tennessee High in a pivotal game at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
“Tennessee High’s scoring more runs than anybody else in the state of Tennessee,” Edwards said. “And I’m trying to figure out how to slow them down.”
Science Hill’s deep pitching staff is ideal for tournament play. Senior southpaw Reece Westmoreland (3-1, one save, 2.09 ERA) has struck out 60 while walking eight in 47 1/3 innings. Westmoreland could end up at Carson-Newman where he’d rejoin Grant Rabbitts, last season’s ace at Science Hill.
“If he can keep pounding the strike zone and missing bats – we’ve always got a chance with Reece on the mound,” Edwards said.
Junior left-handers Jacob Beaird (6-0, 1.27 ERA) and Avery Conkin (4-3, three saves, 2.64 ERA) have compiled quality seasons, too.
Another junior left-hander, Unicoi County transfer Brandon Garland, is the staff’s hardest thrower. Garland has allowed 12 hits while striking out 46 in 30 1/3 innings. Control has been his issue. He’s walked 33 batters.
“He’s shown us some really good moments,” Edwards said. “I mean, nobody’s hit him all year. Batters are under .200 against him … He’s really worked hard to try to fix some things these last few weeks. His last two relief outings were good and I feel like he’s on track in the right direction. We’re gonna keep running him out there and keep showing him the confidence that we believe in him …
“I think when it’s all said and done we’re gonna look back at all this and it’s just gonna be some adversity that we had to get through. But I think he’s gonna be an outstanding pitcher for us and, you know, he’s got a great future ahead of him.”
Sophomore right-hander Brandon Feathers (3-4, 2.23 ERA) has pitched better than his record indicates. He has a team-best 1.018 WHIP and has struck out 37 in 36 1/3 innings while walking 10.
“He’s been good all year for us, and he’s pitched against good competition, too,” Edwards said. “He pitched against Morristown East, he pitched down in South Carolina and he pitched against Oakland. He’s thrown some really good games for us against good competition.”
Junior third baseman Bryson Tolley could bolster the staff. He pitched last week for the first time since having Tommy John surgery in January of his freshman year and revealed good mechanics and velocity in the one-inning debut.
“Our plan is to use him to close a game in short relief once or twice in the district tournament,” Edwards said.
Tolley has been exceptional at the plate. He leads the team with a .443 batting average and is tied with Westmoreland for the team lead in RBIs (24). Tolley’s .528 slugging percentage is second to Conkin (.571), who is hitting .369 and tied with Westmoreland for the team lead in home runs (two).
Holly has been an effective leadoff batter. He leads the team in runs (28), doubles (10) and triples (four), and his 23 stolen bases are as many as the next four highest Hilltoppers’ combined totals combined. Holly has struck out six times in 132 plate appearances.
“With my speed,” Holly said, “I just focus on putting the ball in play.”
Holly (13-6) and Beaird (29-14), whose brother Matthew is the starting catcher for No. 13 Coastal Carolina, have each walked more than twice as often as they’ve struck out.
“Our batting averages aren’t bad and our strikeout-to-walk ratio is pretty good as far as our contact rate,” Edwards said. “But our hitting with runners in scoring position – that’s where we’ve struggled this year. But we’ve gotten better in the last 10 days.”
Holly’s glove has been a constant at shortstop, where he’s made dazzling plays the past three seasons.
“He’s a rangy guy with a great glove,” Edwards said. “He makes the routines and he comes up with some fantastic plays. And he keeps balls on the infield that most guys can never get to.”
Holly and second baseman Tilo Skole are adept at rolling double plays. Fielding is easier with a pitching staff that throws strikes.
“We’ve got four or five guys we can roll out there every day and they’re probably gonna do their job and give us a chance to win,” Holly said. “That’s one of the things you think about for the tournament coming up. I’d like to see anybody in the conference – and honestly, anybody in the state – match up with our top five pitchers.”
The ‘Toppers have played a tough schedule that included Elder (Cincinnati), T.C. Roberson (Asheville), four quality South Carolina programs and Morristown East.
“I guarantee you we’ve been as battle-tested as anybody in the state,” Edwards said. “And there’s not been one team that I feel like we didn’t have a chance to beat if we played our best game. But the thing about it is Tennessee High swings the bats as well as all those teams I’ve mentioned and Dobyns-Bennett’s as complete a team as all those teams I mentioned. And you can’t overlook the Crocketts and Boones. … Crockett’s way better than their record shows, and really, so is Boone. Boone’s starting to come on swinging the bats.”
A late-season surge could bode well for the Toppers. Science Hill had won four straight and five of six entering Tuesday’s regular-season finale at Sullivan Central.
“I think, you know, with the way we’re playing right now we’re finally confident and we’re finally feeling good,” Holly said. “So I think we’re gonna make a lot of noise in the postseason. … You think about 2010; that team went to the state tournament. That gives you encouragement.”