Pioneers prep for Opening Day
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It’s rare to get a second chance at a first impression, but Phillip King will have the opportunity next week. The former Pioneer will guide the WCHS baseball team back to the field, hopeful this time the season will last more than four games.
King arrived to much fanfare last year, with many glad to see an alumni with ties back to the dominant runs of the late 1980s and early 1990s back in charge. In his limited time, King had the Pioneers looking like a contender for district and region titles, but COVID-19 shut everything down swiftly.
Now back for Year 2, but still feeling like Year 1, King can still feel the electricity in the community as the season approaches.
“People are excited to watch baseball games. They missed the spring and miss the summer,” said King. “Obviously, baseball has been a great program around here for a long time. I think people are excited to get outside and see guys back with their cleats in the dirt.”
Warren County is set to start its season in the Grand Slam Challenge next week. The Pioneers will face Wilson Central Monday, March 15 on the road before making their home debut Tuesday, March 16 against CPA.
While fans have only had one chance locally to see the Pioneers in the last 24 months, some of the names will feel familiar. Warren County has 14 seniors on its varsity roster, many of which have made contributions in the past.
It will be good to have some veteran leadership, particularly as the Pioneers look to replace seven departed seniors, most notably pitcher Jack Keele (now at Trevecca) and OF Trace Adcock (now with Motlow).
“We lost seven seniors who we would’ve loved to see play it out. Those guys were going to make a push for us, but they’re gone and we have to regroup,” said King. “I don’t know if I’ve been around a group who works harder than these guys. On top of that, they have great character.”
The senior class includes Kason Holder, Omari Harris, Ryland Holder, Ty Martin, John Garrett, Ben Rivers, Jared Scruggs, Jace Brantley, Wyatt Wilson, Bryan Bynum, Alec Hobbs, Westen Wilson, Braden Bottoms and Brady Melton.
Junior members are Layne Roberts, Eli Kuykendall, Briley Moore, Chance Hunter, Curtlan George, Kyle Johnson and Will Vance.
The underclassmen, who could play varsity and JV this spring, are sophomores JJ Jacobs, Wesley Sherrell, Logan Earls, Jaxon King and Jackson King and freshmen Brayan Holguin, Blaer Melton, Aiden Miller, Brett Cantrell, Alex Tallent, Alex van Vuuren and Easton Denning.
The JV team is set to make its debut Thursday, March 18 with a home doubleheader against Coffee County.
Here are more storylines as the Pioneers get ready for the start of the season:
Carrying the torch
The 2020-21 school year is shaping up to be one of the most successful sports seasons for the Pioneers. It could be the best ever. The baseball team is well aware of that fact, mostly because many of the players have already helped on the gridiron and the hardwood.
The boys on the diamond want to do their duty in continuing Warren County’s sports renaissance.
“There’s some excitement. Football had success, basketball had success – and not a little, they both had a lot of success,” said King. “It’s been energizing for the community. They have said it, kind of jokingly, that it’s on us now.”
It won’t be hard for King to generate that kind of passion from his Pioneers. They don’t need to hear the stories of success, they lived them.
“I always encourage guys to play everything they can and we have guys who have played multiple sports. We have a handful of guys who are bringing that energy from the football field to us. We got guys bringing that fight from basketball – it’s a good thing,” said King.
The Holder brothers, who both recently signed to play football at Sewanee next year, are ready for round two after football, as are Bottoms and Ben Rivers. Kuykendall didn’t waste time transitioning to baseball either – the day after the Pioneers were eliminated at Siegel in substate, he was at Patrick Ramsey Field shagging balls and taking grounders.
It’s not just the multi-sports athletes ready to go though. The rest of the Pioneer squad has been chomping at the bit to start winning as well.
“The guys who didn’t play anything else and have been with us all the time, they get after it. They’ve been dogs in the weight room,” said King. “We have never heard this group complain, even when we lost our season last spring and went through shutdowns all through the offseason. They just ask, “When can we get back to work?’”
Seniors ready to make a splash
While King has his share of talented underclassmen, seniors should dominate the lineup – at least early. The Pioneers have 14 seniors, all of which are making a case to start on opening day. Despite the heated competition for playing time, they’ve all shown the willingness to sacrifice for the team – something King loves.
“They’re all very mature. Since I’ve been here, they’ve bought into everything we’re doing. These guys want to learn. They trust us because I think they think we know what we’re talking about,” said King.
Bottoms may be the best known of the bunch. He has taken reps at catcher since he was a freshman and has been called on to close on occasion. He should reprise both roles this year.
Two sets of brothers are helping the Pioneers as well. Kason and Ryland Holder can do a variety of things (Kason can pitch and play OF, while Ryland will be in the outfield or potentially catch for Bottoms). The Wilsons – Westen and Wyatt – seemed locked in on the right side of the Pioneer infield. Westen has started at second base for two years and Wyatt has grown into his role at first base.
Ty Martin could be the senior to take a big leap in his final year. A role player for the last two years, Martin has added muscle and looks confident at shortstop in the preseason.
Omari Harris is Mr. Reliable in the outfield and has electric stuff on the mound. Garrett, Scruggs, Brantley, Rivers, Bynum and Melton are all working to secure a spot in the rotation. Hobbs is mainly working for a position in the outfield, spots Rivers and Garrett covet too.
“There are multiple parts; If we have a guy who comes in to pitch, we have the next guy who can play that spot. We’re deep and it’s not just seniors – there are juniors and underclassmen too,” said King.
Where the seniors have made the biggest impact is in building a foundation for the program. The Pioneers are taking a lot of pride in their facilities, including multiple weekend work days to improve Patrick Ramsey Field.
In those moments, King sees plenty of leadership.
“The seniors are setting the bar for the younger guys. They’re showing them how to do things and it’s the things we’ve tried to teach them – pride, discipline, culture,” said King.
Finding the right arms
Of the 27 Pioneers listed on the varsity roster, 19 of them are listed as pitchers – either as their primary position or as dual-position players. Needless to say, King has plenty of options when he makes the call to the bullpen.
When spring practice started, King noticed his pitchers didn’t look as sharp. Namely, he needed to see more guys hitting their spots. After a pep talk, the Pioneers are in command.
“A couple of weeks ago, I challenged them. We had played some intersquads and we weren’t great with our control,” recalled King. “We had a rain day and I told them in a 20-30 pitch set, ‘Throw as many strikes as you can.’ If we can’t throw it down the middle with a fastball, we can’t come off that and do other things. Since that day, the pitching has been pretty good.”
King credits assistant coach Brent Whitlock with the team’s arm care – a vital part of the game nowadays. King is hopeful the Pioneers will be healthy down the stretch, when games have to be won or the season is over.
Just as he’s doing with the team’s health, King is also playing the long game with his rotation. It’s going to take some time to find the right pieces for the right game.
“it’s going to by a committee thing, especially early. We’re going to have to see who the guys are. There could be some guys who separate themselves,” said King. “We have a few weeks before district where we could find who is No. 1, who is No. 2 and who are the 3-4 guys who can close down a district game. We have a lot of arms so we have a lot of guys to rely on.”
King is already starting to see some guys make a bid to be the first on the mound. Having command, good speed and a variety of pitches is important, but King’s favorite characteristic is starting to shine through with a few guys.
“We have some guys with some confidence. You want kids who run out there and says, ‘This is my mound and that’s my plate.’ There are more guys who could step up – I’m seeing guys with good velocity and guys with some good breaking stuff,” said King.
Pioneers pack the schedule
Even if tickets are limited this spring (Currently, the WCSA hasn’t been made aware of any capacity limits for outdoor sports), there is a good chance fans will get to see the Pioneers. They are going to be hard to miss.
Warren County has 21 regular-season games on the schedule and is slated to play in three tournaments (which could add as many as 15 more contests). The JV squad has 13 dates for games – many slated as doubleheaders – and will play in two tournaments as well.
There aren’t many gimmes on the schedule either. The Pioneers are going to face the best of the best, starting next week.
“We start out the season with a tough tournament – the Grand Slam. We have Wilson Central and CPA right off the bat. Oakland and Independence are in there too. It’s a buzzsaw, which is good,” said King. “We’re going to see where we’re at compared to what everybody else has done.
“We’re in a good spot. We’re ready to go. The guys are really excited about playing.”
King will likely use all of March as an extended evaluation period for his Pioneers. Warren County isn’t slated to play a district game until April 5 when it takes on Rhea County. Before then, King is going to take it one step at a time and won’t rush his group.
“We want to win every game, but we don’t want to press. Baseball is different – you can be as good as you are, but that guy (on the mound) could just be better. There are going to be highs and lows, but you’re always playing for the tournament,” said King.
The District 6AAA tournament is scheduled to begin May 6. Before then, Warren County will play double-digit games at home, starting Tuesday, March 16 against CPA.
King and the Pioneers are ready to put on a show for the fans.
King said, “We want to fill the park with as many people as we can have – I think people are going to be excited to come watch some Pioneer baseball.”