That’s a pretty long stretch for an area that boasts diamond powerhouses like Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill. In the first 17 years of state baseball championships in Tennessee (1947-63), Science Hill and Dobyns-Bennett claimed five of them. Over the next 54 years, the duo has claimed only one. That came in 1998 when Science Hill scaled the Class AAA mountain, beating nationally ranked Germantown in the finals.
As the Hilltoppers make plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that title, a question comes to mind: When will one of them reach the pinnacle again?
Dobyns-Bennett was knocking at the door last year — coming within three runs of a title-game appearance in a 5-3 loss to eventual champion Brentwood. Tribe coach Ryan Wagner knows what it feels like to get close: He was on the Indians’ state runner-up squad in 1994.
He said one element of the climb to a title is something the Indians have gained in recent years.
“We were one game away last year, and we got there in 2013 and 2014,” he said. “And as the kids go more, I think they gain confidence. In high school, sometimes you feel you have to do the best you can with the athletes and players you have, but when you come close the kids start to believe more and more.”
Northeast Tennessee certainly wasn’t shy on the state landscape after Science Hill’s 1963 title, with Tennessee High winning in 1967.
Classification came to baseball in 1977, and Sullivan West soon took advantage with a Class A championship in 1979. Sullivan North earned Class AAA crowns in 1983 and 1985, and Unicoi County won in Class AA in 1984. Sullivan South was the 1987 Class AAA champion. Unicoi County kept Northeast Tennessee in the mix, winning in 1991, 1992 and 1995.
However, current high school baseball players in this area haven’t been directly exposed to a title-winning team.
“Most of these kids were not even born the last time this area had a state champ,” Wagner said. “All they’ve seen is the success in Knoxville and Middle Tennessee and some in West Tennessee as well.”
But today’s players have seen those teams. Wagner and Science Hill coach Ryan Edwards have scheduled them in the regular season.
“When you play them early in the year, like we did last year, it helps,” Wagner said. “You may not have success early in the season like that, but you learn and gain from adversity.
“We were 0-4 and then 3-6, but we were 22-11 heading into the postseason. Then we ended up 31-13.”
Throughout the years, Dobyns-Bennett and Science Hill have made state noise plenty of times. What will it take to make the next step to the top of the mountain? Wagner said maybe it’s just a player or two.
“Sometimes that’s the only difference,” he said. “You have to produce hitting in your lineup from top to bottom. Against Blackman last year in the state tournament, the bottom of our lineup created the go-ahead run. You have to get crucial hits, and your pitchers have to throw strikes.”
The regular season begins March 12.