March 12th , 2012 10:19 am Leave a comment

Cyclones aim to contend at top of conference

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An experienced lineup is poised to make Elizabethton baseball a contender, again.

Coming off their best season since Joe Nix’s arrival as head coach, the Cyclones look to begin a serious challenge for a Three Rivers title when play begins today at Joe O’Brien Field against Sullivan East.

Nix’s squad tallied a 20-16 mark with an 11-4 record in conference play, reaching the District championship game before falling to Greeneville in a 4-3 heartbreaker in the Region 1-AA semifinal.

The season-ending loss after a strong regular season finish made the Elizabethton squad hungry in the offseason. With a great work ethic in its time away from the coaching staff, players on the team improved themselves and look to be a force this spring. “Just as a whole, the program has really come a long ways,” said Nix, who begins his fifth season as the Cyclones’ coach. “If you go back to Greeneville and look at the improvements we’ve made since then, I think we’ve done some good things and hopefully it will translate to the field.”

When the current school year began last August, Nix said over 20 players began holding their own workouts three days a week in them mornings before school, working “extremely hard.”

“They’ve been going since August and conditioning the heck out of each other by themselves,” Nix said. “They’re getting stronger and committed. … In January, when we were able to open the facilities, they were able to come out and basically do things on their own that we would want them to do in practice.

“We’re hands off at that time and they did a good job prepping themselves that way, so it was very minimal what we wanted them to catch up with now that we’re hands on.”

The biggest strength for the club entering the year is its pitching staff, returning the bulk of the team’s innings last year.

Leading the way are primary starters in seniors Wes Montgomery and McKenly Berry.

Montgomery posted a 4-1 record in 14 appearances with a 2.83 ERA. In a scrimmage with Science Hill two weeks ago, he struck out four of the first six batters he faced and got out of some dangerous situations when the always-tough Toppers charged offensively.

“Wes did a good job,” said Nix. “He got into some trouble and pitched out, and that’s exactly what you want to see early on. You want to see your guys be able to handle pressure and see how they respond.”

Berry, who signed a scholarship to play football and baseball at Tusculum College, returns after a 5-5 campaign during which he led the team with a 1.78 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 13 appearances, including three complete games.

The duo will be joined by fellow classmates Cory Richardson, who tossed three complete games and tallied a pair of saves in 16 appearances, and Jesse Clark, who recently signed with Milligan after a strong year on the junior varsity mound. Nix noted Clark’s improvement in the offseason and said he will be “a valuable asset” with the others on the hill.

Juniors Anthony Ward, Austin Smith and Connor Campbell all each had experience on the mound last year. A pair of freshmen southpaws in Dylan Richardson and Dylan Tolley will also help the team.

“Pitching, I think, will definitely be our strength this year,” said Nix. “It’s like we told our hitters, they’re going to give us a shot every game. It’s up to us as hitters to make adjustments and help them out a little bit. We definitely return a lot pitching, which, obviously, any coach wants that. Now we can tighten up the screws everywhere else.”

Offensively, and in the field, Elizabethton returns many of its leaders as well.

Senior returners include second baseman Chad Pritchard, first baseman Cody Guess and shortstop Jordan Hinshaw. Hinshaw bat .330 last year with a team-high 42 runs and 13 doubles along with a 17-of-18 mark in stolen bases. Prtichard was .230 with 14 hits, 12 runs and eight stolen bases, while Guess bat .286 in 22 games.

Junior standouts include primary starting catcher Thomas Miller and Ward, who will see time at third base. Miller bat .391 in 35 games with a team-high 45 hits a year ago, scoring 24 runs with 26 RBI, six doubles and a home run. Ward, batting .366, led the team with 38 RBI and three home runs, tallying 30 hits and 22 runs.

Sophomore Taylor Edwards will see time in the infield and as a designated hitter following a .341 campaign as a freshman with 31 hits, 34 RBI, seven doubles and a pair of long balls.

Other contributors from the junior class include outfielder Smith, who looked good from the mound against South Greene, a versatile role player in Chris Lanthorn, centerfielder Connor Campbell and Quincy Jackson as an outfielder and pitcher.

“We’ve got a good mix, a good core group that return,” said Nix. “Most of the top half of our lineup is back and now if we can just tweak a few things here and there.

“One thing we want them to buy into is a total team concept. If I’m not getting a base hit to do my job, at least I move the guy over and make good at-bats. It’s early, with just a couple of scrimmages, but we’ve got to adjust and just play disciplined base-hit baseball, especially with these new bats. It’s going to be a fundamental, base-to-base, station-to-station short stroke. We’ve got pitching to keep us in it, we just have to step it up on the offensive side.”

One thing the Cyclones do not lack is motivation. When the season starts today, Nix wants his team to have their sights on the prize and not expect anything less from the success they achieved a year ago.

“There’s a lot of motivation to get back to that game,” Nix added. “The kids expect it now, but we want them to expect more. Not just expect to get there, but to get there and beyond. Hopefully, they buy into that.”

Today’s first pitch at Joe O’Brien Field will be thrown at 5 o’clock.

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