By Trey Williams
Not one to sing his own praises, Science Hill baseball coach Ryan Edwards put together a pitch-perfect state championship run last week in Murfreesboro.
Edwards’ 14th year in Johnson City didn’t offer MLB talent such as Daniel Norris and Will Craig, or perhaps even SEC arms like Reed Hayes and Will Carter. But his Hilltoppers allowed 16 runs while going 10-0 in the postseason.
It was especially gratifying for Edwards, a former pitching coach at Tennessee Tech and Austin Peay who still calls every pitch.
Science Hill hit 13 home runs all season, but throwing strikes, putting the ball in play and steady defense was a powerful recipe for going deep into the postseason.
“We just did all three phases well and we just didn’t have a lot of weaknesses,” Edwards said. “We may not have had the player of the year or the pitcher of the year or the hitter of the year, but we had a lot of good players.”
Left-handed junior Cole Torbett, who bats leadoff and plays center field when he’s not on the mound, pitched a gem against pitching-rich Siegel in a 1-0 win in the second round on Wednesday. Outdueling Jack Nedrow, Torbett struck out 11 while allowing three hits and one walk.
“I wasn’t gonna throw Cole 75 pitches, pull him and use him Friday,” Edwards said. “I felt like that was too hard on his arm at that point. I felt like we just needed to pitch him that one more time, and if we’re only gonna pitch him one more time, give him an extra day and trust (Evan) King and our bullpen for game one. And thankfully, we did it that way, because it took his shutout of seven innings to beat Nedrow. Nedrow was really good.
“And after we got through that our depth of pitching was what took over for Thursday and Friday. We still had another really good starter with Gavin Briggs. The complete game by Cole saved our bullpen.”
Pitchers couldn’t be used in three straight games. So Torbett’s complete-game victory put relievers Dustin Eatmon and Caleb McBride in play for Thursday and Friday.
“And I really trusted Dustin Eatmon and Caleb McBride,” Edwards said, “to go out there and close any door.”
Steady defense was a constant down the stretch, anchored by catcher Owen Painter. The infield included Nate Roller or Briggs at first base, A.J. Motte at second, Jack Torbett at shortstop and Jaxon Diamond at third.
“They made the plays,” said Edwards, reminded of how calm he felt about the “small ball” threat of Hardin County in the state championship game. “I wasn’t worried about their bunting game because I’ve got the best defensive third baseman in the state over there in Jaxon Diamond. You can play him in and you know he’s gonna take care of the hot corner.”
The primary outfielders, depending on pitching, were Cole Torbett, Connor Hyatt, Landon Smelser and Roller.
“We had rabbits in the outfield,” Edwards said.
Science Hill was built for its home ballpark. The ‘Toppers went 23-1 at TVA Credit Union Ballpark, which is cavernous by high school standards.
“I didn’t really tell anybody, but going down to the state tournament, we were 7-8 away from Cardinal Park (TVA Credit Union Ballpark),” Edwards said. “So that was the question in my mind – can my pitchers keep the ball in the ballpark? We’d given up a lot of fly balls throughout the year, but in our ballpark our outfielders would run ‘em down.”
Sure enough, Brighton hit a home run in Science Hill’s first state tournament game.
“And I told myself then, ‘I’m going to have to take more chances on mixing it up on these middle-of-the-order hitters than we have been at Cardinal,’” Edwards said. “So we took more chances against those middle-of-the-order hitters than we did at home. And the good thing was my pitchers executed those pitches.”
Evan King went 7-0 with a 1.18 ERA on the season. Cole Torbett was 8-1 on the season with a 1.79 ERA. Briggs (6-2, 1.47 ERA) and Spencer Powell (3-0, 0.86 ERA) also compiled exceptional numbers.
Smelser, a freshman that batted ninth, might have best exemplified the Science Hill offense this season. A pesky, left-handed batter that appeared most comfortable slicing liners to the opposite field, Smelser ended up batting .392 (second on the team to Jack Torbett’s .396).
Smelser scored the game’s only run in support of Cole Torbett’s masterpiece in the pivotal defeat of Siegel and went 3-for-3 with three RBIs in the 9-5 championship win against Hardin County.
Edwards, the Hilltoppers’ career leader in victories, heard from former Science Hill coaches Bernie Young (coach of Science Hill’s 1998 state champion) and Bob Dempsey and countless others after claiming the title. Steve Spurrier, who started on Science Hill’s back-to-back state championship teams in 1962-63, reached out via athletic director Keith Turner.
Edwards, certainly by coaching standards, isn’t particularly motivated by vanity. But he surely knows he silenced some crickets in the year of the cicada.
Not everyone was high on Edwards when he was in an eight-year state tournament drought – or when he failed to win one with the likes of Norris and Craig.
“One of the things I really appreciated was Bernie Young calling me the day after we won the state championship – and just the way he congratulated me,” Edwards said. “I just really appreciated that. One of the things that I feel like is that the community has been behind me all the way. I was new to the community, and once they got to know me – I feel like the community knows my heart, so I never really worried about all that stuff.
“I mean this is a great place to coach. There’s always gonna be different ways to do things. … I told Bernie Young the same thing I tell my players – this program was good before I got here, and I’m just humbled.”