Few teams have ever come back from so far down to reach the TSSAA baseball tournament as the Red Bank Lions came last year. A 14-game losing streak to begin the season left them far below the radar. But inexplicably, coach Trey Hicks' club fought through the district and regional tournaments to reach the state even with a losing record.
Two one-run losses in the state ended the Cinderalla story. Now it's a new year and the comparisons to, say, Godzilla or the Incredible Hulk would be preferred to that tired fairy tale.
The Lions lose only one player from last year's mix and are built around a group of graybeard seniors, four of whom have played together since the age of 5.
"We have the mentality that, sure, we got there, but we have no guarantees that we can make it back," said Hicks, beginning his third season as head coach. "We're not satisfied."
Hicks said last year's radical turnaround was based around merely having his players rediscovering how to have fun again. That hasn't been an issue with this year's, group, who are rallying around injured all-star Tyler Phillips, dealing both with his absence and eventual return in April. The Lions durable catcher last year, Phillips is six months removed from football season-ending knee surgery, but expecting medical clearance to come at the end of the month.
But Phillips cannot catch, so the Lions have turned to another senior who was his backup last year, Gage Winton, knows how to handle the position and early reports rate him as all-star qualifiy as well. Phillips will be designated hitter when he's cleared.
"Anything to get a .400 average in the lineup," Hicks said. "But in the long run, we won't be relying on 1-2 guys to carry us. We're looking for everyone to contribute."
Tops among the other seniors the Lions are bringing back this year is pitcher/outfielder Hagan Wilkey, who will be counted on more heavily on the mound.
"He threw mostly relief last year, but he got us some big wins in the playoffs," Hicks said. "He and junior Blake Winstead will be our main pitchers. We'll probably give a chance to some of our eight freshman to earn a spot. We need freshmen, but you need to know who you can count on."
The remaining seniors in Red Bank's dugout this season include Ryder Pierce, a versatile second-generation Lion. He'll be used anywhere there's a need. Pitcher-outfielder Corbin Mitchell rounds out this important six-man 12th grade contingent.
Two pitching concerns may cause Hicks to lose some sleep in the early going. Not only are the Lions still in need of a closer, there's no one on hand to fill the gap of a left-handed starter.
The LIons will get a quick taste of how ready they are. Beginning Monday, a two-day, home-and-home return to district play will find Tyner Academy as their first true measuring stick. The Rams are being guided by new head coach Ron Flowers, one of a half-dozen new faces leading local programs.
Other District 6-AA district home and home contests Monday include East RIdge meeting East Hamilton at Chattanooga State and Hixson at Central. Once again this year, 6-AA will hold all of its district games in home-and-home dates on Mondays and Tuesdays.