Four area baseball players are going D-1
It isn’t very often that a Sevier County athlete signs scholarship papers to play sports at a Division 1 university.
It’s unheard of that four sign to do so on the same day.
But that’s exactly what happened Tuesday afternoon, as three senior players for the Pigeon Forge Tigers baseball team and another from the Sevier County Bears all made their college choices final by signing letters of intent and scholarship paperwork.
PFHS senior pitcher Wil Crowe signed with with the two-time national champion South Carolina Gamecocks, PHFS infielder Drake Byrd chose Belmont University Bruins and PFHS catcher Ben Breazeale — who just transferred in this season — tabbed the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons.
Sevier County Bearettes pitcher Dillon Cate signed his paperwork earlier in the afternoon, choosing the East Tennessee State Bucs as his team for the next four years.
Pigeon Forge head coach Mike Guinn, who coached all four boys on the Knoxville Stars summer team, was exstatic that the players had all reached the next level.
“I’m just really happy for them,” Guinn said. “I’ve known them their whole lives, and I’ve seen them develop from 8-years-old baseball until now. Watching them grow up as exemplary young men has been the most fun thing to watch, and their baseball skills have just followed suit. They’ve all become very good players, and that’s recognized by the colleges that they’re signing with.”
“We’ve all put in the time and the work,” Crowe said. “And now it’s all playing off.”
Crowe, perhaps one of the most sought-after prospects in the state thanks to his overpowering pitching, chose South Carolina after the Gamecocks came in late in his recruitment.
“It’s been a goal since I was little, trying to make it to SEC baseball,” Crowe said. “They came in about a month before I decided. They called and came and watched (me pitch). I went for my visit and just fell in love.”
Crowe chose the Gamecocks over Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, College of Charleston and ETSU.
“It’s pretty amazing (getting to sign with a two-time NCAA champion),” he said. “Their coaches are nice — I love them — and their facilities are top-notch, you can’t get better than that. I’m pretty excited.”
The program’s recent successes fit in perfectly with Crowe’s extremely competitive demeanor on the field.
“I love to win and they’re known for winning,” he said. “Really, though, I felt comfortable there. Other places didn’t really click for me, but when I went there it really did click.”
Guinn had nothing but good things to say about his mound ace.
“He’s one of the top pitchers in the southeast, not just this state,” the coach said. “He’s a big arm for us, and one of the biggest things he’s got going for him is he’s just the ultimate competitor. He finishes what he starts.
“He’s a very tough kid, and he’s highly-advanced in the art of position.”
Guinn also said Crowe’s leadership abilities are a huge plus for the right-hander.
“He’s a great kid, a humble young man that wants all the players on the team to succeed and do well, and he’s always been a great leader in that regard,” Guinn said. “One of the things about a pitcher that makes them great is how the team plays behind them, and our team plays great behind Wil.”
Crowe said he and his teammates at PFHS have one thing in mind for his final season with the Tigers.
“We’ve got big expectations. Everybody around knows what we’re going for — a state championship — and we don’t want to settle for anything less. We have have a good class, good teammates and a great coach, so we’re not going to settle for anything less.”
A natural athlete, Dillon Cate could have likely chosen from sevearl sports for a college future.
The Smoky Bears all-time leading receiver on the football field, a playmaker on the basketball court and a Swiss Army knife on the diamond, Cate settled on baseball.
“Dillon has that mind-capacity where he could play baseball for a long time,” SCHS Athletic Director Todd Loveday said. “If he stays healthy, keeps a passion like he has for athletics like he has for athletics right now, this kid can play as long as he wants to in my opinion.”
That future will begin next fall at East Tennessee State.
“I like the leadership they’ve got going on up there, and all the great coaching,” Cate said. “And I just fell in love with the campus when I went and visited. I liked everything they had to offer — a brand new field and everything. I just felt at home when I was up there.”
Cate chose ETSU over other schools that showed interest in Walters State, Tusculum, Austin-Peay and Belmont.
For the Bucs, Cate will be a pitcher — a position his determined personality is well suited for.
“It didn’t take me long to realize that this kid is a solid kid, a competitor, and a winner,” new SCHS baseball coach Casey Taylor said.
Focusing on pitching will be something of a change for Cate.
“I love doing it all — I love to hit, I love to play the field, run bases, everything about baseball — and I’m going to miss that. (But) it’s going to let me focus solely on pitching, and I’m just excited to see how good I really can be.”
SCHS football coach Steve Brewer knows exactly how good he can be.
“He excels at whatever, whether it’s in his personal life, his athletics or his school work,” Brewer said. “He’s just what you’d hope for in a student-athlete.”
Cate said he’s enjoyed his time at SCHS and looks forward to what his senior baseball season will bring.
“Coach (Lance) Traywick put me through the ringer. He’s a really good coach, and he helped me become a better baseball player,” Cate said. “And I’ve played with a great group of guys and they really helped me out. It’s been a great time at Sevier County.
“(This year we’ll) be the best team we can be, and I need to step up and be a leader. I think we’ve got a pretty good team this year, we’ve got a chance to make a run, and hopefully win the district tournament.”
Drake Byrd, who’s played nearly everywhere on the field for the Tigers and most recently shined at shortstop, signed with the Belmont Bruins of the Ohio Valley Conference.
“I stepped foot on campus and it blew me away,” Byrd said when he committed to the Bruins, citing the school’s castle-like buildings and spanking-new baseball facilities.“I liked the coaches, and just pretty much everything else about it. I’ve talked to (assistant coach Scott) Hall a lot. He’s a really great guy, I enjoy talking to him, and coach Jarvis is a player’s coach too. I really enjoy talking to both of them.”
Byrd likely figures into the Bruins’ equation as a corner infielder, though he can also play anywhere in the outfield.
“Wherever they want me to go, I’ll go,” he said Tuesday. “I just want to play.”
Wherever he ends up, the Belmont squad will get a great player and leader.
“Drake is just a complete player,” Guinn said. “He’s an important part of our defense — he’s what we build around. Offensively he does it all well, and he’s going to pitch some this year. He’s just a very important player for us and he’s developed wonderfully in every phase and doesn’t have any weaknesses.
“Drake’s work ethic is second to none,” Guinn continued. “He’s never asked any questions, he’s just done what he’s supposed to do and worked very hard.”
All that work really began paying dividends last spring.
“It all started coming together for him in the last year,” Guinn said. “He showed a lot of production and a lot of colleges were really drawn to him.”
Off-season work added perhaps 15 pounds of muscle to his frame, and excellent play in summer leagues really vaulted his stock.
“I got really confident in myself and in my swing and I just went out there and didn’t hold anything back,” he said.
After a particularly big showing in Georgia, Belmont made an offer that Byrd couldn’t refuse.
“I’m very excited about (signing),” Byrd said. “I’ve been looking forward to it. It’s just signing a piece of paper, but it’s a lot more than that. I’ve been working hard for this my whole life, so it’s kind of nice to see the dream come true.”
Like Crowe, Byrd isn’t done with his prep goals however.
“We’ve got a lot of leadership on this team,” he said. “And there’s one goal, and that’s to win a state championship. That’s what we’re going to work hard to do this year.”
Locally the least-known of the four players to sign Tuesday is Pigeon Forge newcomer Ben Breazeale, a catcher who transferred in from Knox Catholic prior to the school year.
“Ben’s a strong hitter,” Guinn, who’s coached him on travel teams since he was about 12, said. “He’s played with these boys growing up and he’s a talented player. He should be an extremely important part of what we do up here (at Pigeon Forge).
“Obviously it’s his first year playing at Pigeon Forge, but we look forward to big things from Ben. He’s a talented kid that’s really developed. He’s improved a lot in the weight room. We hope for big things from him.”
Breazeale said his choice of Wake Forest was also an easy one.
“When I stepped on campus (at Wake Forest) I loved it,” he said. “The coaches there are awesome. And the atmosphere (is great) for me. It’s small-school, and that’s what I like.”
Breazeale chose Wake over Clemson and Mississippi State.
He said he’s excited about playing with long-time friends Crowe and Byrd on the Pigeon Forge team this season.
“I’ve played with Wil and Drake since I was 8, I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been catching Wil my whole life, since I was 8, so having that connection with him is great on the field. It just adds another level for us.”
Like his teammates, one goal quickly comes to mind for the coming year.
“I think we have a really good shot at winning it all this year,” Breazeale said. “I think we have the talent to do it.”