Cherokees paint 'target' on their backs

Greenback School’s Holden Willis waits for a pitch Feb. 28 during a scrimmage against the Loudon High School Redskins.

The Greenback School Cherokees baseball program is coming off the most successful season in school history that yielded a Class 1A state title and is favored to return to the Spring Fling for a fifth consecutive year.

With success comes responsibility, which is why first-year head coach Justin Ridenour believes the Cherokees have put themselves in a corner.

“We’ve got a good group of seniors that I’ve been very happy with that have really worked hard and kind of led by example, and some of these seniors were on the championship team last year, so they know what it takes to get to that level,” he said. “The only way I know how to do it is to embrace it and just continue to tell our guys, ‘Hey, you’ve created this target on your back, people are going to be gunning for you now, so embrace it and let’s get after it.’ They’ve taken to that mindset so far, but we still have some work to do, but I’m excited with what I’ve seen so far.”

Ridenour must fill big shoes after the departure of head coach Wes Caldwell, who led the Cherokees to a combined 53-20 record, a state championship, two consecutive state tournament appearances and back-to-back Region 1-1A and District 5-2A championships.

Ridenour was a standout baseball player at Alcoa High School and played at Cleveland State Community College. He spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach at William Blount High School and is a “very hands-on coach.”

“First of all, it’s very exciting, naturally, but I’ve had to learn a little about each and every player and just their strengths and weaknesses and where they can help us win baseball games,” he said. “I know we’ve got some guys that may want to play a different position, but that may not be where it helps out our baseball team the best, so we’ve got to put them in position to succeed. That’s been me getting to learn the guys and them getting to learn my coaching style because every coach is different.”

Senior Duke Stinnett spent the last three years under Caldwell and Greg Ryan but has quickly adapted to Ridenour and the new coaching staff.

“Coach Ridenour is a great coach. He knows what he is doing,” Stinnett said. “He has a great plan for this team. No matter what the weather is, he always has us doing reps.”

Stinnett, along with Kaden Necaise, Kobie Williams, Wyatt Rutgerson and Austin Burger, were part of last year’s championship team and will be key starters this season. Senior football star Holden Willis will also play a big role.

“Duke Stinnett, he’s going to be a big part of our team and will hit one or two in the order and will play infield,” Ridenour said. “He’ll pitch for us. He’s a good athlete. Kobie Williams, who pitched some in the state tournament for Greenback, he’s going to be one of our top two arms. Just good control, good pulleys and he’ll hit in the upper half of the lineup, too. We’ve also got a kid, Kaden Necaise, and he’s a Tennessee Wesleyan commit, and he’s our shortstop and will pitch some, too. Holden Willis is coming out and playing this year.”

Stinnett, Necaise, Williams and Willis will serve as the top four pitchers and will need to fill the void left by All-State selections Bryce Hanley and Reese Plemons, as well as Seth Riddle, Cole Riddle and Tyler Cullen.

“Every pitcher has been putting time in for the past two months doing bullpens, doing many different drills and arm care,” Stinnett said. “There is tons of pressure going into this season. I have to step up as a leader and keep the team’s head held high. There are many expectations going into this season. The biggest expectation is to win state. We are a young team. We need many more reps. We all need to get used to each other’s play style and get in a flow with each other.”

Greenback scored more than 20 runs in five games last season and have consistently been one of the top hitting teams in Class 1A the last three years.

Despite losing a highly talented senior class, Ridenour feels confident in his squad’s ability at the plate.

“I think we’re going to be pretty good one through six, and then we’re really going to need seven, eight, nine to give us a spark, but it’s kind of the same group of seniors, you know, Duke Stinnett with Kaden Necaise — him and Austin Burger and Holden Willis,” he said. “Kind of an unknown kid is Micah Ford. He hits lefty, runs really well. We’re going to need him to produce. If he can produce, we’ve got the chance to be a pretty good team.”

The Cherokees are favored to sweep through District 2-1A and Region 1-1A, but Ridenour believes this team can make it back to the state tournament for a fourth consecutive year.

“I think our expectations are to make it to state — that should be the goal every year at Greenback,” he said. “I know in our district we’ve got Jellico, Cosby, Washburn, Hancock County ... we expect to be at the top of the district and expect to play in the region with an opportunity to go to substate and get to state. We expect to compete at the top of the district and expect to go compete in the region, and I think Greenback has created those expectations, and that’s a good thing.”

The Cherokees host Lenoir City High School for the season’s home opener at 6 p.m. Thursday.