By Rick Sheek
Unaka, a tradition-rich baseball program, appears to be in fine shape again this spring.
“We lost a lot,” Unaka coach Aaron Dugger said before Wednesday’s practice. “A lot of our young kids that played are back. We had some freshmen and sophomores that got a lot of playing time last year, and a lot of experience, so we shouldn’t be that far behind.
“A lot of those kids were part of the reason that we made the deep tournament run we made last year.”
Indeed, the Rangers (16-16) surged to the District 1-A and Region 1-A tournament championships, and after a Sectional victory to their seventh state berth in nine years.
Josh Rasnick, one of two seniors on the roster, is the ace on the mound.
“He’s been in our rotation since he was a sophomore,” Dugger said.
The next two pitchers are sophomore Eli Rasnick and junior Isaac Ray. Thomas Hardin, a sophomore, may also figure in the picture.
“Thomas Hardin could probably work his way into some starts and some innings,” Dugger said. “The core of my pitching staff is young, and that’s a good thing.”
Weston Colbaugh, a junior, is back at catcher.
“Everything’s going to really run through him,” Dugger said. “He’s started behind the plate since he was a freshman, so he’s a guy we can lean on.”
Eli Rasnick will also play shortstop. When he is pitching, junior Danny Bales is in that slot.
Ray will split time at second base with junior Jacob Hill. Josh Rasnick is primarily a third baseman, although he will see action at first and second as the top returning batter.
“Josh Rasnick is going to be a guy, when he’s not pitching he’s going to play a little bit of everywhere,” Dugger said. “Rasnick is our top hitter coming back. He’s a kid that batted third in the lineup for us last year. He’s our guy with the highest average of on-base coming back.”
The revamped outfield is headed by junior Billy Bales in center.
“He’s another guy that’s going to be counted on to lead us,” Dugger said. “The outfield spots are up for competition.”
A good shot to start in right field is sophomore Brett Crawford.
“He made some good plays yesterday in a scrimmage, which he might be a candidate for that,” Crawford said.
Ray is in left field when not pitching or playing second.
“We may take some lumps early,” Dugger said. “We lost a lot of firepower, but at the same time I feel like with the core group we’ve got – with the young kids and how much experience they’ve got – as the year goes on and the tournament goes on we’ll be OK, and we’ll be able to compete.”
After a 2-10 start in Dugger’s first year, the Rangers closed the regular season in winning 10 of 11 outings on the diamond.
“That’s one thing about it,” Dugger said. “We scheduled our first three games last year, Sullivan East, Crockett and Tennessee High, and that’s our first three games this year. I feel like that’s something that Coach (Mike) Ensor kind of passed down – the tough schedule.
“That’s the only way you’re going to get better, and I feel like that in the past has what’s kind of pushed us over the edge. Seeing the tough competition at the first of the year, that gets us ready for league play.”
The coach sees the conference as a rugged battlefield.
“It’s going to be a tough league,” Dugger said. “North Greene, what Coach (Tim) Lady’s doing down there – the came out of nowhere and made the substate last year. They are very capable, and they’ve got a lot of kids coming back.
“University High is the same way. Hampton and Cloudland, they gave teams in the league fits last year – so you’re going to have to play. The league is about as even as it’s ever been.”
Strengths? Dugger believes it will all start on the mound.
“Hopefully our pitching staff,” the coach said. “I feel like our pitching staff, with what we did this summer and the work we put in this summer, I think it is going to be a strong point.”
He also doesn’t envision this bunch out-muscling opponents such as a year ago.
“I may be wrong, but I don’t think we’ll strike out as much as we did last year,” Dugger said. “We kind of played for the big inning, and we had some big hitters that would try to knock it out of the park. I think we’ll be more fundamentally sound at the plate because we don’t have that.
“We’re going to have to be able to bunt, run and just play fundamental baseball. I feel like we’ve got the kids to do that.”