Just like that, they’re back in play.
After having the curtain pulled on the spring sports season by the TSSAA based off government recommendations due to the complications of COVID-19, local high school baseball athletes are going to get a chance to play an abbreviated season after all thanks to the Tennessee Smokies.
Among them will be a team fielded from Cocke County, as CCHS baseball coach Andy Chrisman will lead players from his program in an independently formed team in the upcoming summer league that will be hosted by the Tennessee Smokies beginning in June.
“I am very excited for our guys,” Chrisman said. “It’s definitely not going to make up for losing their real season, but there are plenty of positives to come from this. Hopefully it provides some closure for the seniors who had their last year taken away, and it provides some development opportunities for the younger players.”
The Cocke County based team will be called the Newport Fighting Cocks, and will be independent from the high school program as mandated by the TSSAA.
In early May the Smokies announced they would host the first ever East Tennessee High School Baseball League. The league will consist of 24 teams, and will be divided into an east and west division.
Teams in the east division will play their season at the TVA Credit Union Ballpark in Johnson City, and Northeast Community Credit Union Ballpark in Elizabethton. West division teams will play at Smokies Stadium.
The Newport Fighting Cocks will play in the west division, and will begin their season on June 4 at 7:30 p.m.
When spring sports were initially postponed in March, many understood given the crisis that faced the nation and the preventative measures that were being taken. However, as the delay went on hope began to dwindle for coaches and athletes alike who were hoping to return to the field.
Once the decision was handed down to call them off completely, everyone who’s year had been impacted had many mixed emotions.
“Originally I was very supportive of the national shutdown,” Chrisman said. “I thought we would miss a few weeks and then be back to playing. As it continued to be extended more and more we all began to lose hope.
“When the season was finally cancelled it hit me like a ton of bricks. My wife said I hadn’t let myself believe it could get cancelled. So when it did I was devastated.”
Many coaches in the area began seeking alternative options to still have some sort of season, no matter how short or unorthodox it may have been.
Earlier this month the Tennessee Smokies announced their intention to run the summer league. The idea was introduced shortly after the state’s high school spring sports season was cancelled altogether.
“The Smokies presented this opportunity to the head coaches at our district baseball meeting,” Chrisman said. “After the meeting I drove straight to (A.C. Willis’) office and he thought it was a great idea too. We took a poll of a few of our guys that day. All of them loved it and their parents were on board. So we reserved a spot the next day.”
Since then the anticipation and excitement has been palpable. The summer league won’t only be a chance for baseball programs around the east Tennessee area to salvage some sort of season. It’s also a chance to give 2020 seniors a more proper sendoff.
“We only get four years with these guys and it goes by so fast,” Chrisman said. “We were robbed of the final chances to make memories with our seniors. That’s been the hardest thing for me. Not getting to be around my boys and get to know them and help them grow up.
“It’s been a really hard spring from that standpoint. Hopefully this summer league allows us the opportunity to reclaim some of those things.”
The high school league the Smokies will run will be a benefit for all parties involved.
As uncertainty continues to surround the minor leagues in baseball, this operation allows the organization to put their facilities to use while giving back to the surrounding communities that support them in a big way.
“I can’t thank the Smokies and our athletic director, A.C. Willis, enough for allowing this to happen,” Chrisman said. “I know there is a business angle for the organization in orchestrating this, but for them to see a need in the local communities and put on something like this for the kids is just really incredible.”