By Trey Williams
Science Hill fell short of reaching yet another state baseball tournament this spring, but the Hilltoppers’ successful season helped it add an unprecedented achievement to the program’s rich history.
Science Hill was ranked nationally part of the season and spent a number of weeks ranked No. 1 in the state en route to a 31-6 record. It gave coach Ryan Edwards 100 victories in the past three seasons, a feat not previously done.
And Science Hill did it while replacing 12 seniors from last season’s squad.
“I’m so proud of these guys for jumping in there and just taking off where we left off the last two years,” Edwards said.
The ‘Toppers went down swinging. It appeared they were going to force a decisive third game with Hardin Valley in the sectional at TVA Credit Union Ballpark after taking a 7-6 lead with five runs in the fifth inning.
But Hardin Valley, coached by former East Tennessee State player Tyler Roach, ended it when Ty Denton hit a two-run home run.
“It’s tough,” Edwards said. “When you get to this point in the season and you’re playing somebody from Knoxville, they’re well tested just like we are. And it’s gonna be tough no matter what. We’ve been in this situation, I think, 10 times in my 15 years and we’ve won about five of ‘em and lost about five of ‘em.”
Left-handed senior pitcher Nate Conner, who will remain teammates with Ryan Smith next year at Walters State, fittingly went the distance in his final game at Science Hill.
“While we didn’t accomplish all of our goals,” Conner said, “I would still say we had a successful season with us being ranked highly throughout the season, us sweeping the conference and winning the region.”
Conner was a finalist for the TSSAA’s Class 4A Mr. Baseball Award. Conner credited his father Kevin, a Science Hill assistant coach and former Milligan player, for much of his success, including the Mr. Baseball nomination.
“I owe that to all my coaches, especially my dad,” Conner said. “He’s been a huge reason for my success.”
Conner finished with a career record of 17-3. He lost as a sophomore in relief against Hardin Valley in 2021, lost to CPA in his first start in ’22 and then won 16 straight games his junior and senior years before the career-ending loss.
Also a first baseman, Conner batted .466 with nine home runs and 45 RBIs.
“Coming into the season I had just committed to Walters State,” Conner said. “So that really took some pressure off and allowed me to focus more on being a leader and doing what I can to help our team win. Coach Edwards expects a high standard, and losing 12 seniors, we were a really young team. So me and (shortstop) Jake Bedard had to step up and be leaders. I have to give credit to all of the seniors for stepping up.”
Bedard, who will continue his career at Carson-Newman, gave Science Hill a two-run lead with a two-run single and had a bunt single during the go-ahead five-run fifth against Hardin Valley. He batted .429.
Other key Hilltoppers were Smith (.430, seven home runs, 46 RBIs), Jackson Berry (.395, four home runs, 34 RBIs, team-high 52 runs), center fielder Landon Smelser (.369, 39 runs) and Major Osbolt (.430, 37 RBIs).
Conner was 10-1 with a 2.72 ERA. He struck out 65 and walked 18 in 64 1/3 innings.
Smith was 8-3 with a 2.40 ERA. He struck out 85 and walked 28 in 55 1/3 innings.
Pitchers logging impressive numbers included freshman Cole ReSue (0.79 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 17 2/3 innings), Smelser (3.50 ERA in 14 innings) and Osbolt (3.29 ERA in 17 innings).
Edwards will expect the beat to go on next season, but filling the shoes of Conner and company will be hard.
“My favorite memory of Science Hill baseball was my walk-off hit my sophomore year to send us to state, which we eventually won,” Conner said. “That was probably the most fun week of baseball in my life.”