Last year, we figured that Gate City and Castlewood were the baseball teams to beat in Region D.
And so they were.
Both got knocked out in the region tournament, Gate City by Haysi and Castlewood by J.J. Kelly. The crystal ball, as it turns out, is a lot murkier than most of us would care to admit.
Be that as it may, it would be difficult not to place high expectations on J.J. Kelly in 2007. Coach Dave Wyrick has pulled some postseason coups in the past with less talent and experience than he has coming back this spring.
Gate City begins the season under a dark cloud with coach Shannon Carter sidelined with an undiagnosed neuromuscular illness. Robbie Perry has taken over the reins until the medical issues are sorted out.
"If Shannon comes back, it's his job. We're not expecting him back right now, although we're wishing he was," said Perry, who noted Gate City's home games will continue to be played at Hunter Wright Stadium.
"I've had all of these guys in junior varsity, so they're used to me. Right now, I'm going to coach this team the best I can, the way Shannon Carter would coach it."
Elsewhere in the Lonesome Pine District, expect Coeburn to make a highly motivated run in its last season of league membership. At J.I. Burton, Mack Shupe is working with the most talented Raiders squad he's fielded since going to Norton.
In the Cumberland, look for Castlewood and Thomas Walker to once again make strong bids to rule the district. The Pioneers should be particularly fired up after missing out on last year's Region D tournament. But don't overlook St. Paul.
In the Highlands, the advent of senior fireballer Justin Grimm raises the prospects for Virginia High making a state title run in its final season of Group AA membership. Abingdon and Lee High are the Bearcats' chief rivals inside the district.
Coach: Robbie Perry
2006 Record: 16-6
Top Players Returning: Jordan Estepp, p (6-2), 1b-3b (.381); Buck Eldridge, of (.364, 3 HR, 13 SB); Cody Salyers, ss (.435, 24 RBIs); Jon Pope p (1-0), 1b (.321); Tanner Dean, dh (.436); Joseph Riner, rf (.304); Dustin Jones, c (.333); Jon Kerns, p-of
Top Newcomers: Clint Faust, of; Luke Kirk, 3b-p; Ked Byrd, of-pr; Trey Clark, 2b; Daniel Hunicutt, 2b; Nathan Brown, if-p; Eric Jessee, of
Coach's Comment: "We set a goal of getting back to the state. We're hitters. We've got good pitching and good fielding," Perry said. "We've got six returning, but most of them only have one year of varsity experience. After getting beat in the regionals, we're hungry to get back to the region and get back to the state."
Coach: Dave Wyrick
2006 Record: 20-7
Top Players Returning: Cody Bentley, p (7-1) ss (.489, 2 HR), Justin Wilson, p (3-3); Zak Sturgill, p (5-0) of (.260); Matt Dotson, 2b (.340), p (2-1); Griffin Kopp, c (.280); Devon Sproles, 1b (.280); Aaron Gardner, of; Zac Clifton, of (.290)
Top Newcomers: Will Strength, c-of; Logan Stanley, 3b; Chris Johnson, 3b-of
Coach's Comment: "Returning pitching is definitely a strength," Wyrick said. "We need to play at a more consistent level day in and day out. If we can do this and become more consistent with our approach at the plate, we can be very competitive."
Coach: Steve Hubbard Jr.
2006 Record: 14-7
Top Players Returning: Jack Davis, c; Anthony Nixon, 2b (.435, All-Region D); Nick Jennings, p-ss; Christopher Large, 3b-p; Josh Lee, of
Top Newcomers: Andrew Pate, p-3b; David Hubbard, p-ss; Jonathan Dean, c; Jeremy Rose, 3b; Zack Hylton, of; Travis Evans, of; Jonathan Dean, of; Derek Sartin, of; J.T. Miller, of
Coach's Comment: "I look for our seniors to lead the way early. This is a good bunch of young kids," Hubbard said.
Coach: Mack Shupe
2006 Record: 12-10
Top Players Returning: Ethan Stewart, p-c; Will Godsey, 1b (.390, 6 HR); Pat Begley, p-3b; Jaycob Coleman, ss (.370); Jay Coleman, cf; Doug Jacobs, rf (.400); Will Hamilton, 2b; Skylar Peters, p-3b
Top Newcomers: Martinez Miles, of; Tyler Daniels, of; Mike Hensley, if-of; Josh Richardson, if-of; Cody Collier, if
Coach's Comment: "I think if this pitching comes through, we can play with anybody," Shupe said. "Offensively, we've got seven guys who can tattoo the ball. I don't think anybody has more speed than we do. We think Begley, Stewart and Peters can pitch. I threw them to the wolves for two years in a row. We should be ready to go."
Coach: Jim Kelly
2006 Record: 12-8
Top Players Returning: Scott Parsons, 2b; Delmas Lawson, ss-p; Tyler Bray, 3b-p; Brian Murphy, of-p
Top Newcomers: Lucas Fannon, 1b-p; Nick Rowan, of; Paul Thomas, of-p; Kenny Burke, p; Paul Thomas, p
Coach's Comment: n/a
Coach: Mike Rhodes
2006 Record: n/a
Top Players Returning: Morgan Ireson p-of (.400, All-LPD); Chad Leedy, p-if
Top Newcomers: Steven Sizemore, p; John Lake, p; Saul Perez, c; Trevor Hamm, 1b; Cody Boyd, 2b; Andy Sampson, ss; Jason Hatfield, 3b; Jarod Sampson, of; Bud Allen, of; Aaron Carter, of; Adam Stanley, of-if; Andrew Carter, dh
Coach's Comment: "Being a new coach to the district, I'm not sure what other schools might have. I do know this is a tough district and I hope to put a competitive team on the field," Rhodes said. "We are very inexperienced with seven new starters and, of those, only one played organized baseball last year. The players have been working really hard and I hope their hard work pays off for them."
Coach: Chris Wilson
2006 Record: 4-16
Top Players Returning: Caleb Stanley, p-ss; Dustin Fleming, p-of; Nick Roop, c; Justin Mullins, 2b; Ryan Phillips, of; Jordan Meade, of.
Top Newcomers: Chris Strouth, p-3b; Chase Beverly, p-of-if; Ryan Branham, 1b; Chris Hughes, if-of.
Coach's Comment: "We've got some new faces coming out this year that should help. We've got to focus on the fundamentals and pitching this season in order to improve on last year's record."
Coach: Jeremy Salyers
2006 Record: 14-9
Top Players Returning: Chris Smith p-ss; Drew Justice, p-of; Casey Phillips, p-2b; Matt Phillips, c; Dylan Harding, 1b; Justin McMillan ss; Coty Lawson, 3b
Top Newcomers: Andrew Kennedy, p-of; Corey Davis, of; Jon Byerly, of; Eric Mayfield, of; Ethan Collins, of-if
Coach's Comment: "We return all but one starter from last year's team. The success of our basketball team and wrestling team has put us behind two weeks," Salyers said. "We return three valuable arms, including one of Southwest Virginia's best in Chris Smith. If Elizabethton transfer Andrew Kennedy and the rest of our seniors step up, we'll be a contender for the Region D title."
Coach: Tim McElyea
2006 Record: 16-5
Top Players Returning: Mikey Pauley, p (LH, 3-1, 2.03 ERA, All-Cumberland), of (.340, 3 HR, 19 RBIs); Adam Williams p (2-0), of (.362, 2 HR, 13 RBIs); Zach Hensley p (3-0, All-Cumberland), of (.569, 3 HR, 23 RBIs); Hagan Hensley p (5-0), ss (.358); Travis Hall, c (.225); Brett Clouse, 1b (.371); Graham Clouse, 2b.
Top Newcomers: Scotty Hunley (.368), if-of; Robbie Hawkins, p.
Coach's Comment: "We only lost one player off last year's team, learning a valuable lesson with our early exit in the district tournament," McElyea said. "We have a lot of experience returning, losing only one senior. We must improve starting pitching and defense."
Coach: Chris Clay
2006 Record: 11-10
Top Players Returning: Chris Vance, c (.456); Brandon Phillips 1b-p (.432, 7 HR); Josh Brooks, 2b; Nathan Evans ss-p; B.J. Crawford, 3b; Travis Stanley, of; Zak Hicks, of-p; Derrick Torres, of.
Top Newcomers: Tyler Phillips, of-if; Corey Ellis, of-if; Dallas Hileman, of-if; Jon Thompson, of-if
Coach's Comment: "We hope to be competitive in the district. We're looking for leadership on the mound," Clay said.
Coach: Jerry Fields
2006 Record: 7-11
Top Players Returning: Gavin Meade, p-3b; David Coleman, p-3b (.255); Michael Salyer, c (.250); Matt Mullins 1b (.220); Trevor Criswell, 2b (.250); Josh Vermillion, ss (.508); Heath Culbertson, of
Top Newcomers: Chris Jordan, p; Mark Dockery, of; Justin Lawson, 1b; Logan Adams, of; Adam Gillenwater, c; Nathan Strouth, 3b; Lee White, c; Ethan Adams, 2b; Michael Addington, 1b
Coach's Comment: "Our strength is in having eight starters and 10 lettermen returning," Fields said. "But we have questions about our pitching."
Coach: Terry Fields
2006 Record: 9-12
Top Players Returning: Jarrid Hensley p-ss-3b (All-Cumberland); Jacob Arwood 1b (.205); Blake Lawson, c
Top Newcomers: Steven James, p-3b; Adam Pearcy, p-ss-2b; Zack Maness, of-2b; Chris Jones, p; Chris Collier, p; Logan Bohnert, of; Josh Peterson, of; Michael Thacker, of; Robert Vikara, c
Coach's Comment: "It's straight rebuilding for us. We lost some good players," Fields said. "I'm going to play a lot of young kids and hopefully we'll grow up quickly. We just need to get better each game."
Coach: Mark Francisco
2006 Record: 19-4
Top Players Returning: Justin Malone, p-ss (All-Region IV); Anthony Looney, p (All-Highlands); P.J. Russell 1b (All-Highlands); Duran Carson, of (All-Region IV)
Top Newcomers: Derek Salyer, p-2b; Ryan Ramey, p; Matt Rasnake, 3b; Nathan Hagy, of; Tyler Bailey, of; Brandon Ketron, if-of; Preston Pienk, if-of
Coach's Comment: "Our kids have worked hard and are excited about our upcoming season," Francisco said. "Junior Justin Malone and senior Duran Carson were honorable mention all-state and are expected to lead our program in 2007."
Coach: Mark Daniels
2006 Record: 20-3
Top Players Returning: Preston Smith, p (9-1), of (.302); Trey Roark, p (5-0), 2b (.270); Robbie Stout, p (5-0), lf-dh; Zak Messer, p (4-2) ss (.428); Brandon Arnold, 1b (.389); Willie Oakes, of (.406); Hunter Greer, of (.360); Daniel Pullen, c
Top Newcomers: Justin Grimm, p; Tyler Arnold, if
Coach's Comment: "We have pitching depth and (Grimm) solidifies it," said Daniels, whose squad lost to eventual state finalist Tunstall in last year's Region IV tournament. "If we can swing it half as well as we did last year. We've got a good chance. Right now. They want to leave AA with a state championship."
Coach: Adam Burchett
2006 Record: 10-9
Top Players Returning: Tim Whisman, c; Josh Mitchell, 2b-p; Aaron Wolfe, ss; Tyler Martin, 3b-p; Joe Cornett, of; Nathaniel Creasy, of
Top Newcomers: Michael Briscoe, 1b; Jordan Burrows, of; Adam Blevins, of-if; Jordan Burrows, of-if
Coach's Comment: n/a