University of Tennessee baseball coach Todd Raleigh has reached into the southeast corner of the state to secure commitments from Jared Allen, Brandon Zajac and Drew Masingale.
"I'm glad to see UT looking this way," said Joe Shamblin, Zajac's coach at Walker Valley High School. "This area has some good baseball talent."
All three players pitch, but Polk County's Allen is expected to play outfield once he arrives in Knoxville. Zajac, who played mostly outfield this past season, and McMinn County's Masingale will be signed to pitch.
The Volunteers signed Bradley Central's Ryan Casteel two years ago, but the catcher was eager to get started on a pro career. He played last season at Cleveland State and was drafted and signed by the Colorado Rockies.
"Who doesn't want to play Southeastern Conference baseball or even go to the University of Tennessee?" said Allen, already a three-year Polk starter.
"I have wanted to go to UT since I was little. Getting to play baseball for the Vols is a plus," said Zajac, an academic standout who has scored 31 on the ACT.
"There were never any doubts," Masingale said. "I have been a lifelong fan, mostly anything in orange."
Although he went 8-1 on the mound, Allen led the Chattanooga area in hitting with a .547 average (47-for-86) last spring. He hit 15 homers, a triple and 10 doubles, stole 18 bases and knocked in 47 runs.
"My parents have done everything they could to help me, but it's still mind-blowing to me that I have this opportunity," he said.
"They told us they wanted him to play the outfield and hit home runs," said Mark Allen, Jared's father.
Polk County coach Bill Triplett said some schools had looked at Allen as a corner infielder and others as a corner outfielder.
"He also had offers from MTSU and Belmont," Triplett said. "I'm not surprised Jared committed to UT, and if it was any other SEC school I wouldn't have any apprehension, but I wonder if his coach is going to be there. Now UT may end up having a great season next year, but it shouldn't matter with Jared. He's playing in a 19-under league this summer, and everybody tells me he's the best hitter in the league. He can hit anywhere."
Masingale considered the rumors that Raleigh might be in hot water, and Shamblin talked about the same situation with Zajac's parents.
"I thought about it but it doesn't bother me," Masingale said. "I liked the pitching coach (Jason Beverlin) a lot and I have dealt with him the most, but I'm a big UT fan. There's nothing better."
Shamblin said he had expressed his concerns about Raleigh's status to Zajac.
"I talked with his mother and she said that Brandon had always loved UT and that he has always wanted to go there," the coach said.
Shamblin also said that Raleigh and his staff were wise to lock up a commitment from the left-hander.
"They did the smart thing by jumping on him early. He is something of a sleeper, but they saw him and went ahead and offered (a scholarship)," Shamblin said.
Zajac, a 6-foot-4, 190-pounder, pitched only 14 innings last spring.
"He has been a work in progress," Shamblin said. "It's hard to say that with a lefty that's throwing near 90 (mph), but he has reached the point now where he is around the strike zone a lot more. He had some arm issues in middle school, and this past season was the first that his arm hasn't bothered him. It was a matter of him growing into his body and getting stronger."
Zajac has been working with Jason Davis, the former Charleston pitcher who spent six seasons in the major leagues with the Indians, Mariners and Pirates.
Masingale is the first McMinn County player to sign with UT since football standout Shazzon Bradley, according to Cherokees baseball coach Jason Howard.
"JaJuan Smith walked on up there in basketball and wound up earning a scholarship, but the last guy to sign right out of high school was Shazzon," Howard said, adding that Matt Ray, who signed with Central Florida six years ago, was the last Cherokee to sign a Division I baseball scholarship.
Masingale went 3-3 on a losing team but threw a no-hitter against Wheaton Academy (Ill.) and also locked up in a pitchers' duel with Bradley Central's Cole Brand, who signed last month with the St. Louis Cardinals.
"He had 13 strikeouts but lost 1-0," Howard said.
Masingale finished the season with 85 strikeouts.