There could be tight high school baseball races throughout the Chattanooga area if coaches know their stuff.
The tightest might be in District 7-AA where Grundy County, Sequatchie County and Signal Mountain were picked in a first-place tie and Chattanooga Christian and Notre Dame were just slightly behind.
District 5-AAA, which always seems to get tight just before the postseason tournament, had the largest first-to-second spread with Soddy-Daisy leading Cleveland and Bradley Central. Newcomer East Hamilton was picked fourth, Ooltewah fifth, Walker Valley sixth and McMinn County, under new coach Matt Ray, seventh.
District 6-AA lost a stiff competitor with East Hamilton's promotion, but coaches are expecting a stiff race between Central and Hixson, which has its third head coach (former Wildcat Colton Green) in as many years. Coaches also see good things ahead for Tyner, which nudged ahead of Red Bank in a poll of 6-AA coaches.
Elsewhere it looks as if McCallie may be the strongest challenger to Brentwood Academy in Division II East/Middle, Boyd-Buchanan and Silverdale Baptist will be neck-and-neck most of the year in 5-A, Polk and McMinn Central are the likeliest challengers to upend Sequoyah in 5-AA and the South Pittsburg-Marion County home-and-home series could decide 6-A.
Meigs County has moved out of 5-AA and Justin Jennings' crew may be the choice in 3-A, and Rhea County jumped from 5-AAA to 6-AAA where it hopes to challenge preseason favorite Cookeville.
While some teams such as state runner-up Silverdale Baptist are looking to replace more than half of their starters including three college signees, there are those with quite experienced teams.
Soddy-Daisy returns every starter from its 2013 group, and McCallie returns eight starters.
Boyd-Buchanan returns most of its pitching staff, including senior starter Nathan Murrell and senior closer Jim Cardwell, who'll also be the Buccaneers' shortstop. Even with a solid nucleus it's likely that Buccaneers coach Josh Rider will start three freshmen: Cade Evans, Colby Morgan and Cameron Wolfe.
South Pittsburg also returns a stout pitching staff led by Tyler Reed. The returning Pirates pitchers, six total, combined for 227 strikeouts last season.
Baylor could be without Blake Layne to start the season. The catcher has been slowed by mononucleosis.
New faces, new places
Mississippi State signee pitcher Dakota Hudson wasn't the only loss at Sequatchie County. Indians coach Aaron Simmons, casting about for a positive note, said he was anticipating stiff competition for starting jobs. Twelve members of his varsity 20 are new.
McMinn's Ray, though gone for several years between college and minor league ball, is still a familiar face in Athens. A McMinn alumnus, he is the son of former Cherokees coach David Ray. Word is that David is starting a program at the middle school.
Green was brought on to be an assistant to Shane Roberson, who resigned after just a year to begin a State Farm insurance agency. A solid high school player, Colton was in the last bunch coached by Brian Bray, now the Wildcats' athletic director.
Ted Mulder, the Hixson coach prior to Roberson's arrival, has taken over at Sale Creek, whose old coach, Josh Gandy, moved to Signal Mountain to be an assistant to Bumper Reese.
John Dixon, a retired teacher who has been around at Polk County and continues to help football coach Derrick Davis, will be heading up the Wildcats' program. He'll step in for at least a year to replace Michael Carter, who moved to Franklin County.
Former Polk assistant Matt Allen, who should be a leading candidate to return to Benton next year, is reportedly helping Ray at McMinn County.
Two DI signees
There are two NCAA Division I signees playing this season. Baylor outfielder Taylor Maxey, who'll also be doing some pitching, has signed with Tennessee Tech, and Ooltewah catcher Brody Binder settled on baseball, signing scholarship papers with Troy University after considering football offers as a quarterback.
The list of DI prospects was pared by injuries, including tp Walker Valley pitcher Cameron Barnes (shoulder) and Cleveland pitcher Jake Wyrick (knee). Both are out for the year. The left-handed Wyrick, who injured his knee in November, has signed already with Cleveland State.
Walker Valley also will be without junior lefty Elijah Haney, and Cleveland also lost outfielder Kimsey Bell (injured during football season).
"This is the youngest Walker Valley team ever," Mustangs coach Joe Shamblin said. "We are without any experienced pitching other than John Simmons, who was a No. 2 or No. 3 for us last season."
Walker Valley will start at least three sophomores and maybe a freshman.
"We have 43 guys in the program so we have numbers, just not a whole lot of varsity experience," Shamblin added.
Among juniors who'll be getting Division I looks are Soddy-Daisy catcher Dillon Clift, McCallie shortstop Tyler Payne and Meigs County outfielder Jake Moon, who hit .466 for the Tigers last year.
He may be a project or he may turn out to be a prospect, but former Soddy-Daisy player Brett Standifer will be pitching this spring for Bradley Central. The Bears' quarterback last fall after starting for two years in football for Soddy-Daisy, Standifer last played baseball as a freshman for the Trojans.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.