After months of offseason training, the Lenoir City High School Panthers baseball team was back in action for the first time Saturday in an exhibition tournament at Seymour High School.
The Panthers’ junior varsity team fell 13-0 to Seymour, while the varsity defeated the Cumberland County High School Jets 13-5.
“We come up for a play day and it’s been rough lately because of the rain and everything,” Dusty Langley, first-year LCHS head baseball coach, said. “In the first game, we kind of just batted everybody and got a feel for everything that was going on ... see who’s in and who’s out. We were able to field a lot of guys and get a feel for the defense.
“One of the biggest positives from this was we saw a lot of the younger kids step up,” Langley added. “All of the freshmen threw and they threw well. They played a good Seymour team and struggled, but they’re a good team and you’ve got to credit them.”
The Panthers got off to a quick start against the Jets when Zach Fritts tripled on his first attempt, followed by a double from Corey Lankford. Wyatt Collins hit a single to drive in Lankford and push the Panthers to a 2-0 lead after the first inning.
Hayden Vineyard started on the mound for Lenoir City and pitched a solid three innings, striking out two and giving up just one run.
“This was the first time we were able to throw live, other than the bullpen,” Langley said. “Hayden played junior varsity last year and he’s a guy that’s not really going to blow it by you. However, he’s able to keep you off balance with some of his curveballs and change-ups.”
The Jets managed to take a 5-3 lead at the top of the fifth, but Lenoir City’s offense exploded in the bottom of the frame.
The Panthers faced two outs, but Cumberland County gave up two consecutive walks, followed by a RBI double from Noah Collier and a RBI single from Cody Wilhite.
Gabe Williams walked on the next at-bat, followed by a three-run home run by Fritts that would eventually give the Panthers a 10-5 lead heading into the sixth.
“I was just trying to think about what I’ve been taught and stay in the middle,” Fritts said. “It was a good pitch and I just knew that I was going to get a good piece of it and it happened.”
Fritts hit another triple in the sixth, which helped set up three more runs for Lenoir City to eventually come away with the 13-5 victory.
“It was just amazing to play again and finally get back out on the field,” Fritts said. “You get to see the whole group of guys with you and it’s just amazing. It’s been a while since we’ve been back out on the field in a game-like situation and we just wanted to come out and compete. The team fought hard. We got up at the beginning, then got down. We just pushed ourselves to do better and we were able to come in clutch and win.”
Following a disappointing 6-22 season in 2017 that included going winless in District 4-AAA and transitioning into a new head coach, the Panthers are expecting to improve and surprise a few teams.
“We’re going to need all of our guys to buy in and contribute,” Langley said. “Today was a good day for us. It was good for them to get out and compete. They went through some adversity and still found a way to win. It gave me some hope and some positive thoughts about what to do in situations or when they can go.
“We’ve really been working the guys during the offseason and we’re going to emphasize defense this year,” Langley added. “If we’re going to win, then it’s going to be on defense. We’re going to be scrappy on the plate and that’s our goal. In our district games, we’re going to play some small ball because we’ve got some guys with good speed and guys that can lay it down. There may be some games that we drop that we should’ve won, but I really think there’s going to be some that we win that we shouldn’t. This district is tough, but I really think we can surprise some teams this season.”
Lenoir City’s first regular season game will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at home against Sweetwater High School.