BASEBALL COACH OF THE YEAR: Young coach guides young team to state finals

ENTERPRISE – The 2009 baseball season was the best in West Union’s history, but it also happened to be one of the most disheartening.
Yes, the Eagles lost in their first-ever appearance in the MHSAA Class 1A state championship series, but there was something far more devastating.
On a cold January afternoon, West Union baseball coach Ashley Russell hit fly balls and ground balls to his team from near home plate, while eighth grader Ben Kirk, standing behind Russell, caught the throws in from third base – a routine that is second nature to coaches.
However, on one swing both Russell’s and Kirk’s lives changed forever.
“I went to hit a fly ball … It was real cold that day and I had on gloves – thick, thick gloves,” Russell said. “The bat just came out of my hand and hit him as it went by.”
Kirk, who wasn’t practicing that day because of a medical reason, would lose all of his vision in his left eye.
“He was very hurt, blaming himself and all of those things,” said Jody Johnson, who coached Russell at West Union and was the minister presiding over his wedding. “He did everything sure to prevent it.”
Johnson, just eight years older than Russell, has been a mentor to the 25-year-old West Union coach on and off the field. He spoke with Russell several times after the January accident, telling him that his players will be behind him 100 percent.
“I do know this,” Johnson told Russell, “that those kids will be there for you and something good will come out of this. Hard times come before good times. You will reap the benefits of going through hard times.
“Hang in there and let your kids come around you and be there for you.”
The night of the accident, the Union County baseball coaches called Russell. Oxford High coach Bradley Roberson – whom Russell had never met before – and his players sent cards to the West Union baseball team.
“People, not just in our community but all over North Mississippi, sent cards and called,” Russell said. “And then definitely the players were the biggest supporters.”

Eagles, at 1-8, take flight
Nearly a month into the 2009 season and Russell’s squad was staring at a 1-8 record. No need to throw in the towel, though.
“We have played good competition to get us ready for the division and playoffs,” Russell told his players at the time.
The Eagles responded to the bad start by winning 17 of their next 21 games, including two games in the state semifinals against Ingomar – the school that eliminated the Eagles from the 2008 playoffs.
The way Russell was able to get his team to regroup and play solid baseball, after a horrific accident and a horrible start, earned him the Daily Journal’s 2009 Coach of the Year award.
“He had a very roller-coaster ride of a year, being low to high as we can get,” said Pontotoc coach Phil Webb, who allowed West Union to play Game 3 of the state semifinals at Pontotoc after rain left its field unplayable.
Johnson doesn’t enjoy saying this, but admitted, nonetheless, that Russell wasn’t a talented player in high school.
“Honestly, he wasn’t the most gifted player,” Johnson said. “Truthfully, he had to be the hardest-working player I ever coached. First one there, last one to leave.
“My only desire for him was to have more athletic ability.”
But Johnson did see an attribute in Russell that made him successful in high school and would make him successful for the rest of his life.

Character counts
“He was an average player at best, but because of his work ethic he made himself the heart and soul of his team; so much so that he played every position,” Johnson said.
That attribute is just one part of Russell’s character.
“I saw the character in him that I thought he could lead kids in the right way,” Johnson said. “He loved the game and he loved his teammates.
“I never played the game since I have cerebral palsy. But I love it.
“I knew you didn’t have to be a good player to be a successful coach. Him definitely being a student of the game and the way he cared about his team and other people around him naturally transposed to success on the field.”
New Albany coach Curt Fowler noticed right away the leadership skills of his former volunteer assistant.
“You could tell from really day one just the way he listened and watched and took part in everything we did,” Fowler said. “The next year he took control of the drills.”
Fowler pointed out that anyone can read plenty of baseball books to be knowledgeable of the game, but few can interpret the players as well as his former disciple could.
“The kids could really tell that he cared more about them than the game,” said Fowler, who missed his team’s practice so that he could speak to Russell’s team the day after the January accident.
And Russell didn’t change one bit when he got his first head-coaching job at West Union; an opportunity Russell said he wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for Fowler.
“He’s always been there for us all of the time,” said Eagles senior catcher Caleb English.
As a reward for the players, such as English, who had played during Russell’s first two years at the helm of the Eagles, Russell took the team to Florida to play games during the school’s spring break.

Bright future
West Union made it to the state championship series despite not having a single player on this year’s Daily Journal All-Area Team.
The two players who led the Eagles to the title series on the mound and at the plate were only sophomores.
Will Basil was 9-5 on the year with a 3.95 earned run average. But the most impressive thing was his 5-1 postseason mark, including the 15-strikeout, eight-inning performance to outduel pro prospect Josh Hodges and Ingomar in the winner-take-all Game 3 of the state semifinals series.
“Will kind of came out of nowhere this year and really worked hard,” Russell said. “I think the success he had is only going to drive him to work harder. I look for him to have a good year next year.”
Hunter McQuary may be a work in progress, but he still put up impressive numbers at the plate. The sophomore first baseman hit .455 with seven homers and 52 RBIs. He also slugged .784, had a .564 on-base percentage and had a .959 fielding percentage.
“He’s going to have to decide that he really wants to work to be one of the best players in the area,” Russell said. “If he will make the commitment I think he will be.”
A big loss, however, will be English, who was solid both offensively and defensively. He hit .354, drove in 28, scored 40 runs (including the Game 3 winning run against Ingomar), had a .567 on-base percentage and stole 14 bases.
The senior had a .967 fielding percentage and threw out 13 runners trying to steal.
Bo Garrett, Dalton Harris and English were three seniors that provided tremendous leadership and “will be very big blows to us” when they don’t return next season, said Russell.
“But we got a good core group of kids coming back,” Russell said. “We return all of our pitching.
“If we don’t get satisfied and complacent, we have a chance to have another good year next year.”
However, the ones who may be at peace with themselves are Russell and Kirk.
“He’s got to the point now where he just wants to be normal,” Russell said of Kirk.
Just before the start of the Northeast Mississippi Coaches Association for Better Baseball All-Star Games, Kirk took the field one last time for the 2009 high school season. He toed the rubber and threw a perfect strike, just below the belt, right down the heart of the plate.
Usually, the ceremonial first pitch of a baseball game is a bit wild, but Kirk’s toss that day was a perfect strike, just before a game that would have six hit batsmen.
“I was afraid he was going to throw it over the backstop. He may pitch for us next year,” joked Russell, who coached the Class 1A/2A West All-Stars.

John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal