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Baseball season preview: Haywood teams to lean on experienced players

Feb. 24—Winter sports are wrapping up and that can only mean one thing — spring sports are here.

Monday marks the first day of competition across the state, as teams take to the diamond, soccer field, track, golf course and tennis court.

Baseball is one of the first sports to get going in Haywood County. The Pisgah Bears will play three games in the first week of the season, while Tuscola plays twice.

Both teams come into the season with relatively young squads featuring a strong core of seniors.

Tuscola faces early road tests

There are some lofty goals in Waynesville this year for the Mountaineers.

"Our expectations are pretty high this year due to the fact that we have so many returning players," Tuscola coach Zack Shepherd "We had three seniors last year, so we're returning a lot."

This year, the team will feature nine players with varsity experience.

Last season, seniors Jett Benson and Jacob Ward let the team in hitting. Replacing the two will be tough, but the team is bringing in senior Jed and freshman Bo West from Smoky Mountain and junior Tyler Williams from Franklin.

The team is also bringing back some heavy contributors from last year, including sophomore Amos Rich and juniors Evan Conner and Kolt Nelson.

"I think that makes the losses of the seniors less noticeable than it would be if we were playing a lot of new faces this year," Shepherd said.

The coach said he feels like their biggest strength heading into the new season is the team's pitching staff.

"From a depth standpoint, pitching is a strength due to the fact that we have 95% of our innings from last year back," Shepherd said. "We plan on throwing [sophomore] Mason Harrell a lot. He only threw one game last year at Brevard and got the win."

The Mountaineers start their season with six straight road games and will not play at home until March 15 in a Mountain 7 contest against Franklin.

Shepherd said that was a deliberate decision.

"We did that intentionally," he said. "With our field sitting in a flood plain, it stays so sloppy during the winter."

He also says it will give his team an early chance to test themselves against some high-quality competition on the road.

"I like that we have a lot of tough tests," he said. "Our goal is to win every game, but it will let our players see those atmospheres and where we stack up."

Two early tests come against Crest and East Rutherford — both on the road. The two programs have combined for seven state titles in their histories.

"I'm excited about going to Crest and East Rutherford because they both have extremely rich traditions," Shepherd said.

The schedule also features two games against Mountain 7 foe and defending 3A state champions West Henderson.

Over spring break, the Mountaineers will take part in a tournament, playing against four Tennessee schools with numerous state championship appearances and wins.

The Mountaineers kick the season off on Tuesday with a trip to North Buncombe. On Friday, they'll face Enka on the road.

Pisgah leans on experienced core

Across the county in Canton, the Bears are looking at a similar roster makeup to Tuscola. The team graduated three seniors last year.

"I don't know that you replace anybody ever," Pisgah coach Harold Shepard said. "Each player brings something specific. Those kids are great kids and I love them. I don't know that I've ever replaced a player. I've got people stepping up and filling positions."

With just a few graduating seniors, it gives the team a chance to continue to build on the success of last season.

"I expect us to be better than we were last year. I'm excited about what's coming. I feel confident with what I have coming back," Shepard said. "We're going to be young again. Based on what everyone else is bringing back around the conference, I think everything is going to be about equal."

The coach said his team is going to excel at good, fundamental baseball — moving runners from one best to the next and avoiding mistakes.

"At the end of the day, I feel like we're going to be able to play and compete," Shepard said. "They're going to do the little things right. They're going to play baseball. Based on what I'm seeing out of them right now, I think we're going to play good baseball. It's going to be good solid fundamental small-ball baseball. We're going to pitch and we're going to do the pieces that cause you to win."

This year's senior class features a strong group, including Eli Ashe, Eli Rigsby and Walker Fox — all of whom Shepard expects to be big contributors to the team's success. The three have played on the varsity team since their sophomore year, giving them plenty of experience at the top level.

"They're being really solid leaders," Shepard said. "They're doing all the things that good leaders do. They're being super positive with them. They had to learn through trial of fire."

Shepard said he is expecting a lot of close games due to the team's style of play — something Bears fans are familiar with after last season.

"I'm expecting a lot of games that are 2- or 3-run games. It's going to be close with whoever we play against," he said. "We played West Henderson, who went on to be state champions, 1-0 at their place. I don't know that anyone else did that."

West Henderson is going to be a major test again this year. The Bears play them on back-to-back days, not allowing for much rest for either team's players.

A couple of major games always circled on both squads' calendars is the annual County Clash series.

"Tuscola is always a big one," Shepard said. "We play them right before spring break so that's going to be interesting."

The Bears open the season with a trio of opening week games against Owen, Enka and Chase.

"We're going to figure out where we stand pretty quickly," Shepard said.